SNAPSHOT: Migration tensions at Greece-Turkey border present a double-edged threat for the EU
• On 28 February, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan indicated that Ankara would no longer abide by a 2016 EU-Turkey deal preventing refugees from entering Europe via Turkey. The move was prompted by a recent escalation in Syria after a government airstrike killed 33 Turkish soldiers in the northern Idlib province.
• Both countries have blamed each other for using excessive force on migrants. Ankara has accused Greek border forces of wounding 164 migrants and fatally shooting one person. The governor of Edirne province near Greece claimed border guards used tear gas, rubber bullets as well as live ammunition to discourage migrants from entering; Greek authorities have denied the claims.
• On 5 March, Turkey’s interior minister Süleyman Soylu said 1,000 special police forces would be deployed along the border with Greece to prevent a pushback from migrants into its territory.
• Authorities in Greece have said that around 24,000 migrants were prevented from entering between 29 February and 2 March. An estimated 3.7 million refugees mostly from Syria are currently in camps across Turkey.
• The current regional context is key to understanding Erdoğan’s motives as he seeks to secure more political support from the EU towards his government’s actions in northern Syria. While the president has frequently threatened to pull away from the deal, the timing of the decision indicates that there is also an underlying financial incentive for Turkey.
• Indeed, a key demand has been for the EU to commit sending more financial support to Turkey to help it cope with the large number of migrants in its territory. Concessions by Brussels in this regard are highly likely as EU leaders will be reluctant to allow the migrant issue from resurfacing as a priority amid the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.
• This is also because the flow of migrants into Greece, and possibly other EU members westwards, raises the risk of new COVID-19 clusters appearing, particularly along Greece-Turkey border areas. Migrants seeking to enter Greece are living in makeshift camps where poor sanitary conditions and overcrowding prevail, increasing the risk of contamination.
• Meanwhile, Greece will remain the hardest-hit country as it seeks to mount a strong deterrent along its borders. The country is still grappling with the enduring impact of the 2015 migrant crisis, with overcrowded camps spread across several islands in the Aegean.
• From a geopolitical perspective, recent developments will fuel an already tense and historically antagonistic Greece-Turkey relationship. A more militarised border also raises the unlikely but possible scenario of accidental clashes between Greek and Turkish soldiers.
• Security enforcement in the border will also be made more difficult by the sudden influx of migrants into a buffer zone wedged between the two frontiers.
• This carries implications for trucks and other commercial vehicles passing into Greece via zones such as the Ipsala-Kipi border, which will likely face disruption when traversing.
• The EU will likely focus its efforts on maintaining dialogue with Turkish officials and providing additional support to Greek authorities. Seeking to defuse another crisis, for which the EU is ill-prepared to deal with, leaders will likely seek to save the 2016 deal by committing to more funds for Turkey.
• Meanwhile, the sudden influx of migrants near the Greece-Turkey border will attract a heightened security deployment. Increased checks on vehicles crossing the border as well as in nearby areas are likely. This will delay the transport of goods and impact logistics operations.
• Unless an agreement is reached, the likelihood that a large number of migrants manage to cross into Greece will remain heightened. This will present an additional challenge for Greek and EU authorities amid a growing number of COVID-19 cases across the continent.