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5 March 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:44pm

As the Syrian refugee crisis returns, the EU appears heartless

The scenes at the Greek border are holding a mirror to our shared loss of empathy and humanity.

By Kaya Genç

Europe’s most serious humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, long in the making but recently in hiding, has resumed with scenes of chaos and despair at the Greek border. Hours after Turkey announced it would open its borders with two EU members, Bulgaria and Greece, in the wake of a Syrian strike that killed 34 Turkish soldiers on 27 February, a tragedy began to unfold. Drone footage of thousands of Afghan, Burmese, Iraqi, Libyan, Pakistani and Syrian migrants showed families marching to border towns at the crack of dawn. Migrants walked along the 200km marshland of the Evros river, grateful for this opportunity to risk their lives, reminded of how they’ve been reduced to pawns in an ugly game of international diplomacy.

Similarly alarming was the sight of human smugglers industriously using social media to advertise their services and charging around £3,000 for the attempted journey to EU. More than 130,000 people crossed Turkey’s border in six days. But they were stuck in the interzone between Pazarkule, Turkey, and Kastanies, Greece, forced to burn wood to keep warm at night and then breathe tear gas in breakfast time. Hundreds of children among them were traumatised. Mohammad Al Arab, a 22-year-old from Aleppo, died from rubber bullets fired by Greek border guards. In Lesbos, a capsized boat took the life of a young boy.

Since 2011 the Syrian civil war has killed an estimated 500,000 people, injured more than one million, and forced 12 million – almost half the country’s prewar population – from their homes. In Idlib, the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition, where the climate is harsher, reports of babies freezing to death have become routine (a seven-month-old boy named Abdulvahip died in January; the 18-month-old Iman Ahmed Leyla died in February). Thousands of miles separate these Syrian and Greek towns but their fates now seem interlinked.

After Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed assault on his foes, around one-and-a-half-million Syrians began propelling towards the Turkish border. The nine-year-long civil war is unpredictable and far from over: the Turkish military has shot down three Syrian jets in the past three days and, after allowing Turks to get their revenge, Russia retook control of Syrian air space. The town of Saraqeb, once in rebel hands, was recaptured by the regime on 3 March, after Iranian-backed militias and Russian military police intervened. But the town links Aleppo to the rest of Syria and Turkish-backed militias will fight to regain it.

Meanwhile, Greece has been patrolling Europe’s eastern border with fiery determination. The coastguard used poles and warning shots to intimidate passengers on migrant dinghies. Residents of Lesbos tried to stop refugees disembarking on the island through kicks and punches. A small racist group attacked a reporter. Islanders say they want the Moria migrant camp, where 19,000 people now live (it was originally designed for 3,000), demolished to save tourism. For the far right this crisis comes with vast political capital.

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Back in Istanbul there was little anger towards the Greeks but anti-Russian sentiment was brewing. On 1 March, the Turkish editor of Sputnik, a Russian news agency, and three reporters were detained, while the website’s offices were raided. Staff were freed only after an intervention by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. The Russian Consulate, on the city’s Istiklal Avenue, remains cordoned by anti-riot vehicles that block access to adjacent shops and apartments by pedestrians.

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Turkish pollster Adil Gür, who last weekend said Russians made better escorts than genuine friends on national television, was sued by a citizen. Russians and Ottomans never fought on the same side in a historic conflict, but the neo-Ottomanist Turkish government’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has so far refrained from Russia-bashing. Meanwhile, Turkey has abolished visas for UK and EU visitors from March, hoping they will fill hotel rooms left empty by cancelled reservations of Russian tourists who holiday according to the Kremlin’s foreign policy.

Turkey’s authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is surely relishing this moment. “Hey Europe, come to your senses,” he bellowed six months ago. “If you call our operation in Syria an intervention, then it is easy for us. We’ll open the gates and send 3.6 million immigrants your way.” This week he proved he was a man of his word. In domestic politics, the move will play to his advantage: a year ago Erdoğan’s party lost Turkey’s three largest cities, Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul (which alone accounts for a third of the country’s GDP) in local elections – his disillusioned supporters pointed to immigration as their chief complaint. In a meeting with Vladimir Putin on 5 March, Erdoğan demanded a buffer zone in Syria to relocate one million refugees in Turkish-made apartment blocks and to re-energise Turkey’s struggling construction sector.

This war economy is highly compatible with Turkey’s centralised presidential system. On 2 March, a secret parliamentary session on the conflict was held in Ankara: its minutes will be published in 2030. On the same day, Istanbul’s governor announced a ban on all anti-war marches until 10 March. Next week, an old ally of Erdoğan, his former economy minister Ali Babacan, will announce a new political party, but the president’s war cry may leave his cautious voice unheard.

The chaos triggered by more clashes and deaths at the Greek border risks hardline measures from Europe. Greece, having suspended EU asylum law, is implementing summary deportations and ignoring asylum applications. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised Greece as “Europe’s shield”, but the EU’s cold response to the human catastrophe at its doors speaks poorly of European values.

Observers knew where migrants would end up after the opening of the borders last week. But few could anticipate how heartless the EU would appear in response to Turkey’s calculating strongman. The scenes at the Greek border are holding a mirror to our shared loss of empathy and humanity, and setting the tone for a decade of xenophobic politics in Europe.

Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. His books include The Lion and the Nightingale: A Journey Through Modern Turkey