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EU leaders head to Turkey, Greece amid migrant crisis

March 04, 2020

ISTANBUL: The EU dispatched its highest officials to Turkey and Greece Tuesday, as concern grew over a fresh migrant crisis and accusations that Ankara was trying to "blackmail" the bloc by opening its borders to thousands of refugees trying to reach Europe.

Rights groups accused Turkey of using migrants as bargaining chips by pushing them towards the Greek border. But they also condemned Europe for failing to provide greater assistance. Thousands have arrived at the frontier since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced last week that Turkey would no longer stop them trying to enter Europe.

After clashes with Greek police at the official crossing over the weekend, migrants said they were being dispersed along the narrow Evros river, called the Maritsa by the Turks, that separates the two countries. Some Syrians claimed they were being forced to cross by the Turkish army. "They let us go by the river and just told us: ´Go!´ It was the Turkish army," 23-year-old Taisir, originally from Damascus but living in Istanbul for the past five years, told AFP. Braced against the winter cold, many wandered the fields looking for a safe space to cross after emerging from makeshift tents.

They have faced tear gas and stun grenades from Greek police, while unconfirmed videos appeared to show coastguards firing warning shots and beating migrants packed on to boats. Many migrants said they had been forced back by the Greek police.

"Yesterday evening, I crossed with 200 people in small groups," said Mohammad Yasin, a 22-year-old Syrian refugee, in the Turkish city of Edirne near the Evros river. "We were all caught by the Greek border guards who sent us back. They took my phone, my money and even my shoes."

Erdogan claims "millions" of refugees could soon be heading to the European border, but this is widely seen as a bid to pressure EU leaders into greater support for Turkey´s fight against the Syrian regime. Turkey already hosts some four million refugees and faces another huge influx from Syria. The Damascus regime, backed by Russian air power, is pressing a major offensive to retake the last rebel-held province of Idlib. Visiting Ankara, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: "We need to remember in this scenario the first and overriding responsibility of the suffering is the Syrian regime... It is the regime in Syria, backed up by Russia causing this."

European leaders have nonetheless insisted Turkey abide by a 2016 deal to stop migrant departures, but Ankara says the EU has failed to meet several promises under the deal, including visa-free travel, an upgraded customs union and voluntary resettlement of refugees. The EU´s top diplomat Josep Borrell will spend two days in Turkey for "high-level" meetings on the Syrian crisis and the migrant row.

The leaders of the EU´s three institutions -- Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Council President Charles Michel and Parliament President David Sassoli -- also visited the Greek border Tuesday. They met Greece´s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has called for "strong support" from Brussels.