When Turkey opened its border to refugees wishing to go to Europe this week, a large number started flocking to Edirne and the coastal areas from all over the country to cross via land and sea into Greece. This has raised concerns in Athens and other European capitals.
Since the start of the revolution in Syria, Turkey has opened its borders to displaced people fleeing from the violence, not least the regime's use of barrel bombs and, it is alleged, chemical weapons. Today Turkey hosts just under four million Syrian refugees, with the government providing for their needs; impressive camps have been established for them. Humanitarian assistance is provided by Turkish civil society organisations.
The EU was rocked by an earlier wave of refugees, and signed an agreement with Ankara in 2016 under which Turkey tightened border controls and its coastline in order to prevent refugees from getting to Europe. In return, the EU promised to pay around $6.6 billion to Turkey to help provide for the refugees. However, less than half has actually been paid, despite Turkey's commitment to the terms of the agreement.
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The Turkish government has paid a political price for the decision to open its borders and allow so many refugees to enter from Syria. Campaigns by opposition groups and media loyal to the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran, are intended to stir-up hatred and racism, inciting ordinary citizens against the refugees and government policies on the Syrian issue. The campaigns have sometimes been for election purposes, and at other times for overtly sectarian or ideological reasons.
That is not the core of the problem, however, because Turkey can carry the refugee burden and the government is willing to pay the political price in exchange for what is an honourable humanitarian stance. The major issue in all of this is the ethnic cleansing taking place in northern Syria. In an effort to thwart such plans, Turkey wants to establish safe zones to keep local Syrians in their home districts, as it tries to protect Idlib from regime forces backed by pro-Iranian militias and Russia. If the Assad regime takes Idlib, then millions more Syrians will be displaced, which is the intention in order to effect demographic change.
What Ankara wants from the EU is not to send financial and humanitarian aid to the refugees, but rather to be more active in challenging Moscow so that President Vladimir Putin withdraws his support from the regime in Damascus as it seeks to burn and destroy Idlib.
So far, the EU has done nothing to protect Idlib and its residents. It has remained a spectator of the massacres and human tragedies in the province. It greatest concern was and still is to stop a new wave of refugees from reaching Europe. Turkey insists that the best solution to the problem is to keep the Syrians in their cities and villages and protect them, and for European countries to shoulder the responsibility of action against Russia to stop its bombing of civilian areas.
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That is the choice facing the EU. It can help to stop the violence which is the cause of the refugee problem, or it can face thousands more refugees crossing from Turkey into Greece. Those seeking a new life in Europe include Afghans, Pakistanis, Africans and others, not just Syrians.
Turkey is not forcing any of the refugees to leave. All it has done is allow any who wish to go to Europe to leave the country; those who prefer to stay in Turkey are not harassed into leaving and joining the convoys heading for Greece. Turkish opposition groups oppose this policy. They want to send the Syrians back to their own country and into the cold embrace of the rogue regime in Damascus.
The decision is now in Europe's hands. Let's see if the EU steps up to the mark and displays real statesmanship, instead of relying on a brutal reaction to more migrants on the border.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 4 March 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.