(CN) — A new refugee crisis is hitting Europe as fighting intensifies between Turkey and Syria and tens of thousands of people amass at Greece’s heavily militarized border with Turkey seeking entry to the European Union, leading to fierce border clashes.
A wave of refugees and immigrants is pushing to enter Greece after Turkey’s government said it was opening its borders with Greece and encouraging people to seek asylum in Europe. Turkey is strained by about 3.6 million Syrian refugees and many other asylum-seekers who want to make it to Europe. The number of refugees in Turkey is increasing as fighting in the Syrian province of Idlib worsens and about 900,000 people flee the province.
“Europe and others must take robust action to address this monumental challenge,” said Fahrettin Altun, communications director for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We can’t be expected to do this on our own.”
Over the weekend about 13,000 people, many of them from Afghanistan and Syria, amassed at the border between Turkey and Greece. Clashes erupted after Greece closed its border to the influx of people. Asylum-seekers threw stones and charged the border crossing near Edirne. They were pushed back by Greek forces using tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons. A police officer was injured in the clashes, Greek media reported.
Greek authorities are stopping people from crossing the border along the Evros River and at other points. About 100 people were arrested, Greek media reported Monday. Much of the 125-mile border is strung with barbed wire and people were cutting holes through the fences.
Others were seeking to make it by dinghies to Greek islands, where some were met by angry islanders demanding they return to Turkey. The Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios have become major centers for asylum-seekers and in recent days have become scenes of protests and violence as island residents vent their anger at the growing numbers of refugees and immigrants.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a conservative who came to power in July after his New Democracy party won elections, is taking a tough stance on asylum-seekers, claiming that Greece does not have to take them in. More Greek soldiers were sent to the border on Monday.
“I want to be clear: No illegal entries into Greece will be tolerated. We are increasing our border security,” Mitsotakis said on Saturday. “Greece does not bear any responsibility for the tragic events in Syria and will not suffer the consequences of decisions taken by others.”
For now, Mitsotakis has the backing of European leaders who are fearful of seeing a repeat of 2015 when about 1.8 million refugees entered the EU. Europe’s welcoming of refugees in 2015 sparked widespread anger and led to a rise in xenophobia and far-right political parties across Europe.
To stop the arrival of more refugees and immigrants, the EU asked Turkey in 2016 to stop refugees and immigrants fleeing wars, poverty and environmental disaster in Africa and Asia from coming to the EU. Under this agreement, the EU agreed to send $6.6 billion to Turkey for this effort. But the arrangement is breaking down as relations between Turkey and Europe turn increasingly sour.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is turning against European leaders on a number of issues and becoming increasingly aggressive in Syria, Libya, Cyprus and the Mediterranean Sea. After Europeans criticized Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish-held northern Syria in October, Erdogan threatened to send refugees in Turkey to Europe.
“Hey, European Union, pull yourself together,” Erdogan said at the time. “If you try to label this operation an invasion, it’s very simple: We will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way.”
He is now carrying out that threat and claims that Europeans are violating international law by refusing to welcome refugees and instead aggressively pushing them back.
“Look who’s lecturing us on international law! They’re shamelessly throwing tear gas bombs on thousands of innocents piled at their gates,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “We don’t have an obligation to stop people leaving our country, but Greece has the duty to treat them as human beings!”
Stelios Petsas, a spokesman for the Greek government, accused Turkey of pushing people toward Greece.
“In recent days, Greece has been receiving sudden, massive, organized and coordinated pressure from population movements on its eastern land and sea borders,” he said. “This movement is directed and encouraged by Turkey.”
He called Turkey’s actions a breach of the deal between the EU and Turkey concerning refugees.
On Monday, Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sparred as the war of words between Turkey and the EU got nastier.
In a televised speech, Erdogan warned that “soon we will reach millions” of people seeking entry to Europe and he told Europe to take responsibility for the refugees.
“After we opened the doors, there were multiple calls saying ‘close the doors,’” the Turkish president said, according to Deutsche Welle, a German broadcaster. “I told them ‘it’s done. It’s finished. The doors are now open. Now, you [Europe] will have to take your share of the burden.”
At a news conference, Merkel blasted Erdogan, charging that his government had bussed thousands of people from refugee camps to Turkey’s border with Greece, Deutsche Welle reported.
She alleged Erdogan was leading refugees into a “dead end” by pushing them to the Greek border. She accused Erdogan of carrying out his grievances with the EU “on the backs of refugees.”
She said Europe was ready to give Turkey more support for housing refugees.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)