(Bloomberg) -- Greece invoked an emergency clause of European treaties on Sunday and suspended accepting asylum applications, after an influx of migrants seeking refuge in Europe raised tensions along its heavily fortified border with Turkey.
The rapidly evolving crisis came after Turkey told millions of migrants and asylum seekers hosted on its soil that it won’t stand in the way if they want to leave. As thousands of desperate people flocked toward the Greek border, clashes erupted with Greek security forces seeking to hold them back.
“Our national security council has taken the decision to increase the level of deterrence at our borders to the maximum,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a Twitter post after a meeting late Sunday. “As of now we will not be accepting any new asylum applications for 1 month.”
While the Turkish side says more than 100,000 refugees have left the country in the past few days, it remains unclear how many have crossed into Europe or got stuck in no man’s land along the borders with Greece and Bulgaria. Greece says it has stopped mass crossings while the International Organization for Migration has said a much smaller number than what Turkey claims has been trying to cross.
The European Union has maintained a guarded approach, wary of a repeat of the migration crisis that tested its physical frontiers five years ago and stoked anti-immigration populism from Italy to Germany. A desire to control migrants contributed to the U.K.’s decision to quit the EU, so the political reverberations are real.
The EU’s foreign chief says the bloc is following the situation closely, and its top diplomats have been summoned for an extraordinary meeting, while EU Council President Charles Michel will visit the Greek border on Tuesday. But the impression is that the EU -- and Germany, as the dominant economy -- is biding its time to see how events unfold on the ground.
For now, the climate is politically charged. When approaching Greek borders in the area, holders of foreign mobile phones receive text messages saying that “Greece is increasing border security level to maximum. Do not attempt to illegally cross Greek borders.”
Greece invoked a clause of EU treaties that mandates the bloc to extend solidarity to a member state receiving a sudden influx of migrants, as it also sought permission to send migrants back without considering asylum applications, in essence suspending fundamental principles of international law. Since the crisis started, Greek police has been pushing back migrants from regular border crossings with tear gas, despite international and EU law provisions.
The chaos began when Turkey unsuccessfully sought EU and NATO support for its military campaign in Syria, following the heaviest troop losses in decades last week. The EU has yet to agree on a joint position, prompting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to proclaim that his country can no longer accommodate people fleeing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s offensive. Turkey already hosts the world’s largest number of Syrian refugees.
With Erdogan continuing to order Syria strikes in retaliation for the deaths of his troops, Turkey shot down two Syrian SU-24 warplanes and destroyed three air-defense systems, the Turkish Defense Ministry said Sunday in a statement. The Syrian jets were downed after they attempted to attack Turkish planes, the ministry said, without elaborating.
Turkey has warned that the fall of Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, the last rebel bastion in the country, may trigger another mass exodus of refugees toward its border.
Migration flows to Europe decreased following a 2016 deal under which Ankara stemmed the wave in exchange for financial assistance. It was unclear as of Sunday whether this deal is still being implemented, amid repeated messages from Turkey that it will “loosen” its controls.
The German government expects Turkey to fulfill the EU refugee agreement, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Sunday.
In a phone call with Erdogan on Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to Turkey’s effort to aid Syrian refugees, and asked that it cooperates on the management of migrant flows, reminding the Turkish leader of the “solidarity” of France and the EU. It’s unlikely that such verbal expressions of sympathy will be sufficient to appease the Turkish president.
As thousands of desperate asylum seekers continued flocking toward Greece, the prospect looms of uncontrolled violence with Greek security forces sent to stop them. Homeland Security Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis said on Saturday that Greece wants to send the message that no one shall pass into Europe without the appropriate legal travel documents.
An EU diplomat in Brussels said that conveying this message may be hard, unless the bloc as a whole, including Germany, makes clear to the people trying to leave Turkey that the way in is shut. EU government envoys will meet in Brussels on Monday, after successive attempts to agree on a joint position over the weekend failed.
Another wave of migration could derail a delicate recovery for the entire region, already gripped by fear and travel restrictions over the spread of the coronavirus, which is morphing into a pandemic and defies national frontiers. Anti-immigration populist politicians from Italy to Germany are poised to seize the opportunity to go on the attack.
(Updates with emergency declaration from first paragraph)
--With assistance from Paul Tugwell, Arne Delfs, Constantine Courcoulas, Nikos Chrysoloras, Ugur Yilmaz and Cagan Koc.
To contact the reporters on this story: Sotiris Nikas in Athens at firstname.lastname@example.org;Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara at email@example.com;Onur Ant in Istanbul at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chad Thomas at email@example.com, Flavia Krause-Jackson, Karl Maier
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