By opening Turkey’s borders to Europe to potentially millions of migrants, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan risks alienating the same Western partners whose support he counts on to host refugees in Turkey and prevent a further influx from Syria.
Facing a possible new wave of refugees fleeing fighting in Syria’s Idlib region, and angered by what it sees as a lack of Western support, Turkey announced late last week that it would no longer stop Syrian refugees trying to reach European soil.
Since then about 10,000 migrants – mostly from Syria, other Middle Eastern countries and Afghanistan – have flocked to Turkey’s land borders with European Union member states Greece and Bulgaria. Others have taken to dinghies, seeking to get to nearby Greek islands from the Turkish coast.
The numbers are just a tiny fraction of the 3.6 million refugees who earlier gained sanctuary in Turkey from the war in Syria, but the impact of Erdogan’s move has reverberated around Europe, triggering frustration and irritation.
France, one of Erdogan’s main European Union critics, accused Turkey of using refugees to blackmail Europe and said Ankara should respect a 2016 accord with the EU under which it committed to keeping migrants on its territory.
“It is unacceptable that Turkey is using the migrant issue to put pressure on Europe,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in parliament on Tuesday.
European Union ambassadors voiced outrage at a meeting on Monday over Erdogan’s perceived attempt to pressure the EU, diplomatic sources told Reuters. Some envoys conceded, however, that the EU would have to cough up more money for Turkey to keep a lid on migrants reaching Europe.
Erdogan, who has repeatedly chastised the EU for what he says has been insufficient aid delivered too slowly to help Turkey look after the refugees, has spoken to several EU leaders since Turkey announced its move.
He told French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday that Turkey wanted “concrete solutions, proposals and support”.
But putting pressure on allies and potential donors to help Turkey host its current refugee population and prevent a fresh influx from Syria’s Idlib could backfire, analysts say.
Erdogan “has chosen to use the levers of power he has in a relatively confrontational manner with all of his neighbors, natural partners and interlocutors,” said William Wechsler, Director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.
“The problem is that this approach ends up with you being fundamentally isolated.”
The migrants who rushed to the border in the hope of building a better life in the more prosperous EU have been pushed back by Greek authorities using tear gas. The majority are now stuck on the Turkish side, without shelter or food.
“People seeking asylum are once again being used as bargaining chips in a deadly political game,” said Amnesty International Deputy Research Director Massimo Moratti.
The migrants’ presence has also aggravated chronic Greek-Turkish tensions. Turkey’s foreign minister said on Tuesday, without giving evidence, that Greek soldiers killed three migrants trying to enter the country, a claim Greece denied.
Athens in turn accused Ankara of orchestrating a coordinated effort to drive migrants across the frontier.
Turkey’s immigration department denied a report that it had used its buses to ferry the migrants to the border. However, prompt transport was available for those choosing to take their chances at the frontier.
In Istanbul’s Fatih district, buses were already waiting on Friday morning to carry migrants to the border, just hours after Turkey’s surprise announcement.
Ahmet Topcu, a travel agency manager, said he had been contacted by a foundation that works with migrants, asking him to arrange the buses.
“We carried them here and there in the past and we took a lot of their money. So this time it is free,” he said.
Turkish media covered every step of their journey. Mainly pro-government broadcasters showed migrants boarding buses in Istanbul, walking to the border in the Western province of Edirne, and getting stuck in no-man’s land.
One channel dubbed it “a walk toward hope.”
A European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Ankara’s move was aimed at extracting more cash from the EU. “We have rather strong reasons to believe that [migrants] were not only let through, but they were even pushed, encouraged to leave, and it was all planned,” he said.
Referring to planned talks on a third tranche of EU financing for Syrian refugees in Turkey, under a 2016 deal which greatly reduced the flow of migrants into Europe, he said negotiations “shouldn’t take place under pressure”.
On Monday, Erdogan said he was offered one billion euros in talks with Europe but that Turkey no longer wants the money.
“No one has the right and authority to play with Turkey’s honor,” he said.