President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday he would not stop migrants trying to cross Turkey’s border into Greece despite EU pressure to do so, but he also announced a summit next week in Istanbul with European leaders to seek a solution to the crisis.
Tens of thousands of migrants have been trying to get into Greece, a European Union member state, since Turkey said on February 28 it would no longer keep them on its territory as part of a 2016 deal with Brussels in return for EU aid for the refugees.
Greece has sent troops to the border area and used tear gas and water cannon against the migrants, but the pressure has continued. Greece said it stopped 963 illegal migrants in the 24 hours to 6 a.m. on Tuesday and arrested 52.
Erdogan, speaking to reporters on his plane back to Turkey after discussing the migrant crisis on Monday in Brussels with top EU officials, repeated his call on Greece to change tack.
“We are not thinking of closing these gates. Our proposal to Greece is to open the gates. These people won’t stay in Greece. Let them cross from Greece into other European countries,” he said, calling for a “just, humane sharing” of the burden.
His comments will revive memories of the 2015-16 migrant crisis, when more than one million people, mostly fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Asia, reached the EU via Turkey and Greece, boosting support for far-right parties.
Greek military vehicles and soldiers on foot continued on Tuesday to patrol along the wire and steel fence that separates the Kastanies crossing from Turkey’s border post at Pazarkule.
Greek officials said the 52 migrants arrested from Monday to Tuesday included Syrians, Afghans and Iranians.
Ankara says Greece’s stance violates the migrants’ human rights. It has also accused Greek forces of shooting dead four migrants on the border, a claim Athens strongly denies.
On Tuesday Turkey’s migration authority said it had filed two applications to the European Court of Human Rights regarding one migrant it says was killed by Greek forces and a family it said was pushed back from the border.
More lawsuits are being prepared on behalf of migrants whose rights have been violated, it said.
Erdogan said he would convene a summit in Istanbul on March 17 on the migrant issue with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and possibly British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
He said he had stressed in the Brussels talks the need to update both the 2016 migration deal between Ankara and the EU and Turkey’s customs union with the bloc, and also to revive Turkey’s stalled EU accession process.
“The EU leaders accepted that Turkey had fulfilled its responsibilities under the March 18 (2016) agreement and that the EU had acted slowly,” Erdogan said, adding that technical and political teams would now produce a road map.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, will conduct this process and try to come up with proposals in time for a summit of EU leaders on March 26, Erdogan said.
Ankara says the EU has so far handed over only about half of the six billion euros initially promised to help house, feed, educate and care for the 3.6 million refugees living in Turkey.
Turkey also wants more European support over the war in neighboring Syria, where Turkish troops face off against Russian-backed Syrian government forces.
The 2016 pact also envisaged European countries taking in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from camps in Turkey and rewarding Turks with visa-free travel to the EU.
On Tuesday a German official said Germany would take in up to 100 children living in refugee camps in Greece. Germany took in nearly one million refugees in 2015-16, but Merkel has since faced a political backlash from right-wing voters.