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25th Jul 2021

EU-Turkey border getting back to normal, for now

  • 'Thousands of migrants remain' at the Greek border waiting to see what the EU and Turkey agree, a UN agency said (Photo: UNHCR.org)

Far fewer people have tried to cross the Greek border in the past 48 hours than in the previous two weeks - but Turkey says migrants are still welcome to have a go.

"The last few days, the situation at the borders was very stable. We had very few attempts from migrants to enter," a Greek foreign ministry spokesman told EUobserver on Monday (16 March).

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EU institutions and a UN agency corroborated his statement.

"Numbers of people trying to cross into Greece are back to previous levels," a European Commission spokesman said.

"For the past two evenings, it's been quiet. Very, very few people have tried to cross. The situation is calmer than in recent days, but we don't know what it means for the future," a spokeswoman for the EU border control agency, Frontex, added.

"Over the last few days, several hundred migrants have been leaving the [Greek] border area", the International Organisation for Migration, a UN agency, also told this website.

"[But] thousands of migrants remain and are likely to stay and wait for the outcome of the next meeting between Turkey and EU leaders," it added.

The difference was huge compared to a few days ago, when Greece was stopping tens of thousands of people a day.

The New York Times, a US newspaper, also reported that Turkey had sent busses for migrants to return from the Greek border to Istanbul.

But when asked about the report, the Turkish foreign ministry said only that Turkey's new policy - to let migrants go to Europe - had not changed.

"At this stage, I would say that there has not been a change of policy regarding the migration issue," a Turkish spokesman said on Monday.

Virus impact

The Greek border crisis was the top story in European media until the coronavirus pandemic turned the world on its head.

Asked if the virus outbreak had changed Turkey's thoughts on migration, the Turkish spokesman said: "We all live in catastrophic days due to the coronavirus".

But whatever Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan might be thinking, the virus has had an impact on the situation.

Turkey, this weekend, closed its borders to nationals from nine EU states (though not Greece) in a containment measure.

The Greek foreign ministry said it had no new figures on border crossings because its government was overwhelmed by the health crisis.

"We cannot give any official comment because the whole government is dealing with the coronavirus," a Greek diplomat said.

French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel were to go to Istanbul on Tuesday to meet Erdoğan, but they will now speak via video-conference instead.

And Frontex, which, last Thursday, deployed 100 border guards to Greece from 22 EU countries, some of them with high infection rates, has equipped its staff with gloves, masks, and disinfectant kits to keep people safe.

Migrant geopolitics

For their part, French and German diplomats declined to say what the Macron-Merkel-Erdoğan talks might achieve.

EU officials, who met the Turkish leader in Brussels last Monday, agreed to review implementation of a 2016 EU-Turkey deal to stop migrants coming.

Germany and the Netherlands have also voiced sympathy for Erdoğan's idea to create a safe zone for refugees inside Syria.

But senior diplomats from the US, which would have to police any no-fly zone against Russian and Syrian warplanes, indicated that that was not going to happen.

In the meantime, the main cause of the Turkey-EU problem - a Russian-led military campaign in the Idlib region in northwest Syria that was pushing three million more refugees into Turkey - was held in abeyance after Erdoğan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin agreed an Idlib ceasefire.

But the US expected Russia to resume bombing when the moment was ripe.

"The sad record of Syria over the course of the past two years has been ceasefires with Russian guarantees that have not been ceasefires - they were temporary, transactional halts until Russia was prepared to renew the campaign," the US ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield, said last week.

"This is no longer an asylum problem ... it's not even a refugee problem [or] migration problem. We need to recognise that. It is very clearly a geopolitical issue," Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told British newspaper The Guardian on Monday.

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