Turkey opened the floodgates

EURefugees2020Paris--In Greece, the military and police clash with refugees trying to get across the Turkish border as islanders to the south cope with hundreds of new arrivals. Across a continent, German politicians wow to keep their borders shut even as thousands protest in the capital to open them.

And in France, some wonder if they are going to see refugee tent cities popping up in front of their shops and restaurants again.

"Here we go," said Christine, who recently closed her restaurant in northern Paris on a city square, which hosted hundreds of migrants a few years ago.

"It killed our business," she said of the influx. "We never really recovered."

European officials, worried over a repeat of 2015's refugee crisis, are scrambling to contain the fallout from a move by Turkey over the weekend to open its western borders to the more than 4 million refugees and migrants it hosts.

Over the past two days, European Union countries have moved to shore up their borders and the bloc has sent its top officials to Turkey to resolve a growing dispute over Syria.

An escalating conflict in Idlib between Russian-backed Syrian government forces trying to retake the province from the Turkish-backed opposition has pushed almost a million Syrians to flee, many toward the now-closed Turkish border.

Erdogan has warned that Turkey cannot take more refugees. He wants European support for his efforts in Syria and for the refugees, saying a 2016 deal to limit the influx in exchange for billions of dollars was insufficient.

That deal resulted in a steep drop in new arrivals into the EU, from more than 1 million in 2015 to 123,000 in 2019, according to the UN.
Some Europeans have called his move 'blackmail.'

“I understand that the situation (in Idlib) has become very drastic for Turkey…and I understand that Turkey faces a very difficult challenge," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "I certainly understand that Turkish President Erdogan expects more from Europe. Regardless, I find it completely unacceptable that President Erdogan and his government are not talking to us about their unhappiness with the situation but instead, playing it out on the backs of refugees."

In Germany, meanwhile, officials moved quickly to get the message out that unlike in 2015 when Merkel opened the country's doors to newcomers, Germany is closed.

"There is no point in coming to Germany," said former Christian Democrat parliamentary group leader Friedrich Merz, a possible candidate for chancellor in 2021. "We cannot accept you here."

Meanwhile, German politicians worry about 2021 when Merkel steps down. Like other European countries, Germany has seen steep gains for far-right parties over the past few years, including in local elections last year. That rise in support is attributed to the refugee issue.

Even so, as in 2015, some in Germany, including church officials, believe the doors must remain open. On Tuesday, a few thousand took to the streets of Berlin to protest closed borders for refugees, chanting "We have space!”

"Everyone should be on the streets protesting today. What is happening in Greece is completely unacceptable - shame on you, Europe!," wrote one supporter Lara Minkus on Twitter.

Greece, meanwhile, has a new conservative government since July, determined to stop the influx. On Sunday, the government suspended applications for asylum applications for a month as it forcefully repelled thousands of refugees at the Greek-Turkish border with tear gas and water cannons.

“(This) is an asymmetric threat to Greece's eastern border, which is also Europe's border,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis after he visited the border Tuesday with EU officials. “The illegal invasion of thousands of people takes the form of an attack on our national territory, often with people of unknown origin and unknown purposes on the frontline.”

Greece saw 74,000 arrivals in 2019.

Meanwhile, European countries such as Greece, Germany and France, continue to struggle to integrate refugees.
On the island of Lesbos, near Turkey, 1,500 refugees and migrants arrived by sea this week, joining about 20,000 still stuck there in bursting and unsanitary refugee camps. The government won't allow the newcomers on the islands to leave for the mainland or any other European country.

Rahime Ewazari, 40, of Afghanistan, has been waiting on Lesbos for her asylum application to e processed for the past three months. She can expect to wait for a while as Greece faces an enormous backlog. She says she has no other choice.

“We (of the) Hazara (minority) have a big problem in our country because there's a lot of fighting (that targets us),” she said. “We want to go to the European Union to save our children. Even so, we can't survive in Moria (refugee camp). It's like hell.”

The refugee issue has polarized the 80,000 islanders. Some welcome the newcomers while others form vigilante groups and target the refugees, and those who try to help them. Last week, there were riots that forced the government to back down on its plan to build a new refugee detention center.

“We need a solution for both the islanders and the people arriving,” said Stratis Valliamos, a Lesbos fisherman who has helped save dozens of refugees from drowning on their way from Turkey in the past five years. “I understand that people are afraid, you can't have 20,000 people living in a slum next to a city of 30,000 because among these people there are criminals, too.”

“But, if there was a war here I'd do the same thing," he added. "I'd take my kid and get in my fishing boat or on a plane and save ourselves."

Apostolou reported from Lesbos, Greece. Eros Banaj contributed from Berlin.

Photo: Screenshot taken from Seebruecke International video about the conditions in Camp Moria in the Greek island of Lesbos. The organization tweeted: "We have arrived at Camp #Moria. Thousands of people are forced to live here. The state is failing, important work is being done by NGOs. The members of the delegation are given a tour." 
Credit: Courtesy of Seebruecke International official Twitter page. (02/28/20)

Story/photo published date: 03/04/20

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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