OPINION

Reopen the Greek-Turkish borders: Why it makes sense now

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Greece’s air, land, and sea borders with Turkey have been closed, barring a few exceptions, for over one-and-a-half years. Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, there were a number of legitimate reasons for such measures, yet it makes sense now to reopen Greek-Turkish borders.

When upon meeting with his counterpart in Thrace on June 14, Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Dendias declared that Greece and Turkey would accept each other’s vaccination certificates, some interpreted this as the lifting of the long-lasting travel ban between the two countries. Since March 2020, the Greek-Turkish borders have been closed to a large extent, barring a few exceptions. Despite the high-level announcements, the restrictions remain in effect to date. This is because the pandemic is not the only reason impeding travel between the two countries.

Covid-19 has caused global restrictions on non-essential travel for a long time, but after many months of lockdown and isolation, the world is slowly but surely returning to normalcy. Greece reopened for tourism on May 14, and so far all of the European Union along with 26 other countries of origin have entered the list of exemptions, with the remaining subject to presenting proper documentation. 

The situation related to Turkey and Turks is more complicated and somewhat contradictory. Currently, Turkish citizens cannot enter Greece from any country and through any border unless they are permanent residents of Greece, except for emergency travel as verified by the Greek Consulate. Greek nationals, however, are able to visit Turkey and re-enter Greece without the need for quarantine on either side. 

The land border was open only at the Kipoi/Ipsala gates, and even though Kastanies/Pazarkule reopened on July 3 after remaining shut for 16 months, strict restrictions remain in place. While nationals or holders of residence permits from other EU countries may not enter or transit through Greece from the land borders to Turkey, Albania and North Macedonia, they may do so via Italy and Bulgaria. This causes great difficulties for Turkish citizens and other nationals, who may live and work in different European countries and wish to spend their holidays in the region. 

Air travel between Turkey and Greece has been allowed since March 20 for Greeks and other EU nationals without the need for isolation and subject to sufficient documentation, but not so for Turkish citizens, unless they are Greek residents. The Aegean maritime border has remained entirely closed since March 2020, except for commercial shipping. Greek-Turkish borders thus remain by and large closed for travelers between the two countries. 

There may have been valid reasons related to the pandemic, however these are fading, and Turkey may be considered to join the list of countries that are exempted from travel restrictions. Even though it had a slow start, the vaccination program has greatly accelerated in Turkey, with more than 53 million doses administered and over 19 percent of the whole population being fully vaccinated, putting the country among the top 10 in the world. Linked to this, the previously high epidemiological rate has seen a sharp fall as well.

Announcing that the country was safe for both residents and visitors, officials declared that all remaining restrictions would be removed as of July 1, in hopes of reviving their struggling economy. Several countries, including France and Germany, have taken Turkey off their list of high-risk countries. As the Delta variant is currently making governments re-examine travel rules, Greece may well consider taking targeted measures for increased protection, such as requiring both full vaccination as well as a negative PCR or rapid test, which is currently the case with Russia. 

The virus has not yet left us entirely, but advances in medical science are making it possible for us to resume our lives without jeopardizing public health and safety. Re-establishing controlled connection between neighboring countries would be a good step on the road to normalcy. 

While the closure of the borders took place in the context of the pandemic, critics argue that it is not the only cause for their remaining shut and that the reasons may be more symbolic than scientific. Around the time when the coronavirus first started spreading, the Greek-Turkish border saw another major crisis that put its permeability at stake. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he would allow everyone to cross over to Europe, which resulted in a surge of refugees heading to and piling up at the gates of Greece for some three weeks in March 2020 amid Greece’s and the European Union’s firm commitment to prevent that from happening.

The consequent adoption of hardening policies and heavy securitization measures, including the building of high walls along the border and camps, coincided with a decline in the number of incoming and hosted migrants. Although the humanitarian crisis is far from being resolved and the issue of international migration is certainly not over, its current status does not prevent, and in fact necessitates, a discussion to take place to “(re)open the borders.”

During the pandemic, another standoff between Greece and Turkey took place at sea. The Eastern Mediterranean recorded its most heated summer in decades amid tense developments on the military, political and diplomatic fronts as both sides continued accusing each other of provocations. While some noted that this was a tough test of the rapprochement – the period of amicable relations since the 1999 earthquakes – the previous 20 years had already strengthened the pre-existing social, economic and cultural bonds between the peoples of Turkey and Greece, such that nobody would favor any escalation of conflict with the other country.

Throughout last summer, calls for restoring peace and friendship were heard from both sides. This year’s meetings between high-level politicians of the two countries produced positive announcements of goodwill towards a calm summer, bringing a sigh of relief for those who believe that bilateral political problems are best addressed through the strengthening of societal relations. Reopening the Greek-Turkish borders would definitely contribute to this end.

Yet the strongest argument for reopening the border to Turkey concerns the Greek economy. Revenues from tourism, Greece’s primary industry, dropped by 80 percent from 2019 to 2020. The impact is much higher in the border areas of Thrace and on the islands close to Turkey. Greek individuals and small businesses who have long relied on short trips to Turkey for shopping and commercial exchange can no longer engage in these activities due to border restrictions. Cruising and yachting has come to a halt for the second summer in a row, causing major problems for travel agents, boat owners, marinas, seamen and various suppliers.

The rather distant islands of the Dodecanese and Northern Aegean, which earned essential income during the years of the financial crisis through catering for Turkish tourists, are desperately waiting for daily ferries to resume and bring affluent customers from luxury seaside resorts like Bodrum and Datca. Of the 33 million tourists who traveled to Greece last year, almost 2 million were Turks, contributing 330 million euros to the Greek economy. Given the Turkish lira’s dramatic devaluation last year, the number of visitors from Turkey may not bounce back to 2019 levels, but every extra bit to make up for the huge loss of business would be of great help. The reopening of the sea border is essential for island tourism to be restored.

The unpredictability of when the borders will reopen, if ever, adds another source of unease: Restaurants cannot arrange for their supplies, rental car companies are not using their whole fleets, local markets aren’t filling up their shelves due to not knowing for sure if their customers will be able to come.

Relations between families and friends formed due to the ever-increasing number of mixed marriages, expatriates and partnerships between Greeks and Turks are under stress as everyone awaits the next announcement delivered on a weekly basis to see whether or not they will be able to visit the country that lies only a few kilometers away. This brings a sense of reversal to the status quo of the last century, an unwelcome feeling for anyone living in the border zones of either Turkey or Greece. 

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is how fed up we are with isolation. Enhancing interaction and dialogue is a must for a healthy global society. In this beautiful corner of the world, peaceful cooperation and intercultural exchange will only accrue benefits. For the sake of good-neighborly relations, bilateral political reconciliation, and economic recovery, therefore, it makes sense to reopen the Greek-Turkish border now.


* Ilay Romain Ors is an associate professor in social anthropology, a research affiliate at the University of Oxford, and an instructor at Deree – The American College of Greece. She is the author of “Diaspora of the City: Stories of Cosmopolitanism from Istanbul and Athens” (Palgrave, 2018).