Pinning the blame on Ankara for the refugee problem doesn’t absolve the European Union from its moral duty.
Politics has once again taken precedence over the plight of refugees stuck at Turkey’s border with Greece as European politicians sidestep responsibility and instead blame Ankara for the situation, experts say.
More than 100,000 people, women and children among them, are braving harsh winter conditions and tear gas after crossing over into Greece and Bulgaria, which have deployed heavy border security to stop them from traveling farther.
Many more are trying to take the sea-route to reach different Greek islands.
“Turkey has opened the humanitarian border since the contested EU-Turkey statement has failed to ensure safe routes and activate the ‘Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme’”, Dr Ayselin Yildiz, an associate professor of international relations at the Yasar University, told TRT World.
The EU-Turkey statement is a reference to the 2016 agreement under which Turkey agreed to stem the flow of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries.
Turkey, which sits on the edge of Europe, is a transit point for many of the refugees and migrants escaping war and deprivation in their own countries.
Yildiz says that part of the agreement was to resettle the refugees from Turkey to member states of the European Union (EU) but little has been done in this regard.
As per the agreement, which the European leaders pushed for because of the growing anti-migrant sentiment at home, some 72,000 refugees living in Turkey were to be taken in by the EU. Only 20,292 were resettled up until March 2019, she says.
The EU was also supposed to come up with safer routes for the refugees against the Turkish promise to stop the irregular flow of migrants. That never happened.
The latest wave of refugees is headed for the Greek border after Turkey relaxed their movement, saying it was too embroiled in the Syria conflict to stop them. Tensions around the besieged Syrian region of Idlib escalated last week after Bashar al Assad regime killed 36 Turkish soldiers.
Home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Turkey hosts the largest number of people from the war-torn country. It is also where hundreds of thousands of people from other countries have taken refuge.
Pal Nesse, a senior advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), said he hopes that the Syrian refugees won’t be used as a political tool by the regional powers.
“When refugees arrive at your border, you shouldn’t keep them out - particularly not with tear gas,” he told TRT World.
“We are not very pleased that Europe has tried to prevent refugees and migrants from coming here. Europe should take more responsibility for people who have fled Syria.”
The Greek police fired tear gas across the barbed border fence with Turkey to push back migrants - a video doing the rounds on Twitter showed people dashing for cover and a man desperately trying to protect two kids by sprinkling water on their faces. One Syrian man has reportedly been shot dead by the Greek border guards.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek Prime Minister, was true to his word when he announced increasing the “deterrence at our borders to the maximum” on Sunday.
The EU foreign ministers are set to meet this week to discuss the situation, which is a consequence of the battle being fought in Idlib. It remains unclear how far they will go in addressing Turkey’s concerns.
Ankara has for years complained that it has been left alone to deal with the burden of Syrian refugees. The EU did not support Turkey when it proposed creating a special zone within Syria for the possible return of the refugees.
Similarly, Bashar al Assad’s forces backed by Russian airpower and Iran’s Shia militias, have steadily taken control of opposition-held areas and driven out the residents.
“No one really cares about the conflict that we have on our borders. Europe didn’t help Turkey in creating a civilian safe zone and Turkey was left alone to deal with the refugees,” says Yildiz.
European leaders see the refugee problem as a “crisis and not as a shared responsibility,” she says.
“And with the situation in Idlib escalating, it will create another push for refugees to head towards Turkey. The flow towards Europe is not a bargaining chip or anything. It’s just reality.”