With Greece already struggling to deal with an influx in arrivals of undocumented migrants from neighboring Turkey, comments by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Thursday that his country may “open the gates” to migrants if it does not receive more international support fueled concern in Athens and beyond.
“We did not receive the support needed from the world and especially from the European Union, concerning the burden-sharing,” Erdogan told a rally of his Justice and Development Party in Ankara, noting that his country is hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees but has only received part of the sum pledged to it by the European Union in line with an agreement for migrant returns reached in 2016.
Erdogan also underlined the need for a so-called “safe zone” for refugees in northern Syria, appearing to link this directly to the migration crisis. “Our goal is for at least a million of our Syrian brothers to return to the safe zone we will form along our 450-kilometer border,” Erdogan said.
“Either you will provide support, or, excuse us, but we are not going to carry this weight alone,” he said, adding that if it does not receive support, “we will be forced to open the gates.”
In Brussels, the European Commission sought to play down Erdogan’s statement, with spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud telling reporters that both Turkey and the EU were committed to the March 2016 deal. “We trust that we can continue this work in good faith with our Turkish partners,” she said. She said the EU has released 5.6 billion euros of the 6 billion that was agreed, with the rest to be disbursed shortly. (Ties between the EU and Ankara were strained further in July after Brussels imposed sanctions over Turkey’s illegal prospecting for hydrocarbons off Cyprus.)
In Athens, meanwhile, Alternate Migration Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos briefed other members of the cabinet on attempts to draft a “master plan” to tackle a burgeoning migration problem. According to statistics presented by him Thursday, the past three months have seen a 114 percent increase in migrants reaching the Aegean islands compared to the same period last year. Hundreds of asylum seekers have been moved from crowded camps on the islands to facilities in northern Greece. But scores more keep coming – 199 Thursday alone.