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Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
border problems

Explainer: What’s going on between Turkey and Greece and the EU?

Talks on the migrant crisis are being held today – here’s the background to the situation.

THE EUROPEAN UNION and Turkey are holding talks on the migrant crisis today as the latest escalation in fighting in Syria has led to a surge in the number of people at the bloc’s borders and revived worries about migration in Europe.

Tens of thousands of asylum-seekers have been trying to cross into the EU for over a week after Turkey suddenly announced that it would no longer block their passage to Europe.

migrants-at-the-greek-turkish-border DPA / PA Images Migrants are in a confrontation with Greek security forces at the Turkish-Greek border. DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Numerous clashes have broken out at the Greek border between riot police and migrants. Athens has also accused Turkish police of helping people cut down fencing and of bombarding its forces with tear gas. 

Why has this flared up now?

The pressure on the EU’s border with Turkey is mirrored at Turkey’s border with Syria, which has seen a huge influx of people attempting to enter the country as they flee from the onslaught on Idlib by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies. 

The province is the last swathe of Syria held by rebel groups, which are backed by Turkey.

Turkey already hosts nearly four million Syrians but the latest outbreak of fighting in the war-torn country has led to nearly one million more Syrian asylum-seekers fleeing to Turkey’s southern border, further burdening strained resources.

The EU promised to bolster a 2016 deal by giving Turkey hundreds of millions of more euros in aid to stop migrants reaching the EU but Ankara was unimpressed and decided to open its borders with Greece.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed on a ceasefire in Idlib on Thursday and it appears to be holding for now.

What’s the background to the 2016 deal?

In 2015-16 Greece was overwhelmed by the mass arrivals of people and began letting them pass through to other countries in the EU. This prompted other countries to reinstate border checks, undermining the free-travel area, which is one of the union’s signature achievements.

turkey-greece-migrants Emrah Gurel Migrants walk in Edirne at the Turkish-Greek border today. Emrah Gurel

Brussels and Ankara came to an arrangement whereby Turkey was given €6 billion in exchange for shutting off the flow of people into the EU.

The deal has seen the number of migrants arriving in Europe slow to a trickle. However, relations have been strained, with Ankara repeatedly accusing the EU of reneging on aspects of the arrangement, including failing to take in refugees from Turkey.

The Greek government has accused Turkey of using the migrants as “pawns” in an attempt to exert diplomatic pressure; while Brussels interpreted the move as an effort to secure its support against Russia over the Syria situation, according to the Reuters news agency.

What’s been happening at the EU’s borders with Turkey?

Hundreds of refugees in Turkey began arriving at the country’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria as soon as Ankara indicated at the end of February that it would not be stopping them from getting to Europe. 

Those numbers have swelled in the days since and Greek and Bulgarian authorities have moved to reinforce their borders with riot police and troops.

The Greek boundary has seen numerous clashes between security forces and migrants. Turkish police have also reportedly bombarded their Greek counterparts with tear gas at regular intervals.

Athens has accused Turkish police of handing out wire cutters to help people break through the border fence.

The Greek government released footage which it said showed a Turkish armoured vehicle assisting efforts to bring down the fence.

Turkey, in turn, has accused Greek border guards of using undue force against the migrants, injuring many and killing at least five.

Athens has consistently dismissed the claims as lies. It pledged to extend the fence in three different areas over the weekend. 

turkey-greece-migrants AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

There have been dramatic reports of hostility towards migrants in Greece with self-styled militias carrying out nighttime patrols in border areas.

A refugee centre on the island of Lesbos was also set ablaze. No casualties were reported in the incident and it is not exactly clear how the fire started.

On Friday, Erdogan rowed back slightly, ordering the Turkish coastguard to prevent sea crossings after more than 1,700 migrants landed on lesbos and four other Aegean islands over the past week.

The coastguard, however, said Turkey’s policy of allowing migrants and refugees to leave by land was untouched, and the instruction only affected sea crossings.

What happens now?

President Erdogan is meeting senior officials in Brussels today in a bid to hammer out a solution to the situation.

Ahead of the talks the Turkish leader called on Greece to “open the gates” to the asylum-seekers and allow them to pass through to other EU countries. 

“Hey Greece! I appeal to you… open the gates as well and be free of this burden,” he said, adding: “Let them go to other European countries.”

An increase in EU aid to Turkey has been touted as a potential solution to the issue, however, the bloc’s 27 member states are still wrangling over their next long-term budget, so sending billions to Turkey might prove a tough sell.

Earlier today, Germany said the EU was considering taking in up to 1,500 migrant children who are currently housed in Greek camps.

“A humanitarian solution is being negotiated at the European level for a ‘coalition of the willing’ to take in these children,” Berlin said in a statement.

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