The Closed Gates of Europe Refugees Caught in the Middle of Turkey-EU Standoff

When the refugee crisis ebbed in 2016, the EU could have used the time to fix its asylum system. But it didn't. Now, Turkey is sending refugees north again as more Syrians seek to escape the violence in Idlib. The ensuing chaos has come as a surprise to nobody.
Greek police confronting migrants on the island of Lesbos: Yet another low in a political and human drama of which the Europeans have lost all control.

Greek police confronting migrants on the island of Lesbos: Yet another low in a political and human drama of which the Europeans have lost all control.


By Giorgos Christides, Matthias Gebauer, Steffen Lüdke, Peter Müller, Maximilian Popp, Lydia Rosenfelder, Christoph Schult and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt

The house belonging to the Arab family is packed with neighbors and friends on this Thursday midday. They have all come to pay their last respects to Mohammed al-Arab.

The young man had fled to Turkey from Syria, one of millions of people trying to escape the violence. He initially found work in a shoe factory in Istanbul, earning enough to feed his family that had stayed behind in Afrin, a town in northwestern Syria. "Mohammed was a good boy,” his uncle Ahmad says over the phone. "He didn’t want to fight, so he went to Turkey.”

But his death hasn’t just triggered anguish among those he left behind, but also rage. Mohammed didn’t just die, says his uncle. "He was murdered.” His family sees him as a victim of Europe’s heartlessness.

Mohammed al-Arab, just 22 years old when he died, was among the thousands of men, women and children who left Istanbul for Greece last week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that his country would no longer seek to prevent migrants from heading north. But during an early morning attempt to cross the border into Greece, Mohammed al-Arab was struck in the neck by a projectile. It remains unclear if it was a real bullet or a rubber bullet, nor is it known who exactly fired it.

One eyewitness told DER SPIEGEL that Greek border guards had opened fire. Turkish officials are also blaming the Greeks for Arab’s death. The investigative agency Forensic Architecture, based at London’s Goldsmith College, analyzed videos that were shot immediately before and just after Arab was killed and they reached the conclusion that there was indeed gunfire at the border area. The Greek government, however, denies that one of its own soldiers or policemen was responsible.

One thing is clear, however. A young man is dead.

Lost All Control

If it is true what the witnesses at the border say and what the analysts in London have concluded, then the death of Mohammed al-Arab marks a defining moment. It would mean that border agents had shot and killed a refugee on the EU’s external border. It would mark yet another low point in a political and human drama of which the Europeans have lost all control.

The eagerness to seal off the border is symptomatic of a continent that has grown callous. On Wednesday, another five people were injured and one killed, allegedly by gunfire from Greek border guards.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Some 13,000 people are currently trapped between Turkey and Greece.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Some 13,000 people are currently trapped between Turkey and Greece.


By opening up Turkey’s northern border, Erdogan has set off a chain reaction, even if only a few thousand people initially set off for Greece, some of them traveling in buses that had been chartered by the government in Ankara. But it was enough to trigger panic among Europe’s politicians.

Memories of 2015 were awakened, a time when boats full of refugees capsized in the Mediterranean almost daily, killing men, women and children. Hundreds of thousands headed north on foot, trekking along country roads and highways alike, creating images that have burned themselves into Europe’s collective memory . In many countries, right-wing populists took advantage of the fear to inflame passions against the refugees.

On Thursday evening, Putin and Erdogan agreed to a cease-fire and to the establishment of a buffer zone in the Idlib province, the last one in Syria that remains in rebel hands. That could be enough to provide hundreds of thousands of displaced people in the region a bit of breathing room. But it seems doubtful that the deal will lead to lasting improvements in the situation facing the people there . After all, the autocrats have agreed to cease-fires before, only to violate them a short time later or stand idly by as one of their allies resumed shooting.

Greece has now almost completely sealed off its border with Turkey, with soldiers and police seeking to fend off the asylum-seekers with teargas and clubs. According to the United Nations, some 13,000 people are currently trapped between Turkey and Greece, almost half of them families with children. They have become human leverage in the ongoing confrontation between Turkey and Europe. Erdogan is trying to force Europe into more cooperation when it comes to the violence in Syria and the resulting stream of refugees, and he is demanding more money to keep them in Turkey.

A Drastic Step

This week, Greece announced that it was suspending the right to asylum for one month, saying it was facing an emergency and as such its decision was consistent with EU law. Critics, however, believe the move is in violation of the Geneva Refugee Convention. Those who cross the border could face several months in prison.

Despite the drastic step, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been unable to completely reassure his people. On the island of Lesbos, normal citizens and right-wing extremists have taken control and are practicing vigilante justice. They have been resorting to violence to prevent refugee boats from landing, in addition to setting fire to hostels and attacking NGO workers and journalists.

The situation in Greece is also placing added pressure on the shoulders of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has thrown her weight behind open borders in Europe to a greater degree than any other European head of government. And there is significant risk that not much of her refugee policies will be left after days of chaos in Greece. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has pledged some 700 million euros in aid.

Ultimately, though, Erdogan’s move this week has served to disabuse Europe of a fallacy: namely that the deal between the EU and Turkey represented a solution to the refugee crisis. Acting almost exclusively on Merkel’s initiative, Europe pledged to pay Turkey 6 billion euros by 2025 in exchange for Turkey preventing migrants from continuing on to Europe. And it worked for a time, more or less. Erdogan ramped up protection measures at the Turkish border and the number of people making their way to Europe plunged.

Now, though, it is becoming clear that the critics were right all along. From the very beginning, they were warning that the refugee deal with Ankara had made the EU dependent on Erdogan. Indeed, those who have been monitoring Erdogan’s comments over the past several years are not surprised in the least that he has now opened up the Turkish border to Greece. After all, he has repeatedly threatened to abandon the refugee deal if Europe didn’t fulfill its end of the bargain. The only thing that might come as a surprise is the shamelessness with which Erdogan is now taking advantage of the migrants to achieve his own political goals.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: Europe has no plan.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: Europe has no plan.

Foto: Isopix / Imago Images

On the other side, though, the Europeans had plenty of time to prepare for the inevitable next wave of refugees, but did nothing. Instead, the Europeans simply sat back and watched as Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his most important allies, Russia and Iran, reconquered step-by-step the last rebel stronghold in northwestern Syria. They did nothing as the Russian air force targeted residential housing, schools and hospitals, displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

Assad’s offensive triggered significant agitation in Ankara, but Europe didn’t seem particularly bothered by that, either - despite the fact that Turkey is already hosting close to 4 million refugees. Over the past several months, the mood in Turkey has grown increasingly tense as a result of that refugee presence. The country’s lasting economic downturn has led many Turks to begin viewing the Syrians as unwelcome competition on the labor market. Physical assaults targeting Syrians have become more common.

The Turning Point

Those close to Erdogan are convinced that one reason the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost municipal elections last year in Istanbul and Ankara is widespread dissatisfaction with the president’s refugee policy. Erdogan is determined to prevent any more refugees from entering the country, but he is certainly also aware that if Idlib were to fall completely to Assad’s offensive, hundreds of thousands of Syrians would have no other choice than to flee to Turkey.

As such, the Turkish president’s demands that the international community intervene to stop Assad and Putin in northwestern Syria have become increasingly irascible. In parallel with those demands, he has also sent Turkish troops into Syria to slow the offensive.

The turning point for him came a week ago Thursday, when an attack by the Syrian or Russian air force in Idlib killed at least 34 Turkish soldiers . A crisis meeting at the presidential palace in Ankara soon afterward produced two resolutions: First, Turkey would expand its military activities in Idlib; second, Erdogan would open the gates for refugees to travel onward to Europe.

The second measure is designed to pressure the Europeans and NATO to support Turkey’s Operation "Spring Shield” against Assad in Idlib. At the beginning of this week in Brussels, Ankara demanded access to NATO satellite surveillance and the stationing of Patriot missile defense systems on the Syrian border. Furthermore, Turkey is requesting additional aid money from Europe to manage the refugees it is currently hosting, on top of the 6 billion euros that had already been agreed to.

Erdogan isn’t even trying anymore to counteract the impression that he is using the refugees to exert pressure. Every day, buses are bringing hundreds of refugees from Istanbul to the Greek border, with organizers speaking of a "Voyage of Hope.” The Turkish state broadcaster TRT even aired tips in Arab for the trip "from Idlib to Berlin.”

One of those who decided to take the voyage is Abdullah Ruhabi of Syria, who was stopped by Greek soldiers as he crossed the border at the end of last week. He crossed the Evros River in an inflatable raft together with five other refugees, fought through the underbrush and waded through the mud. Ruhabi thought that the worst was behind him.

Migrants walking along the Evros River on their way into Greece from Turkey.

Migrants walking along the Evros River on their way into Greece from Turkey.


A shy, unshaven man of 24, Ruhabi is wearing a leather jacket and his eyes are tired. He is from Aleppo, where he was preparing to study engineering. Four years ago, he fled to Turkey and ended up in Istanbul, where he worked 12 hours a day in a metallurgy factory.

He says he didn’t see any possibility of a future in Turkey, so he jumped at the chance to board a bus heading for Greece following Erdogan’s announcement that the borders would be opening. Near the border town of Edirne, he says, Turkish police gave him an inflatable raft so that he and his companions could cross the Evros.

"Let Him Die"

Ruhabi didn’t suspect that Greek soldiers would be waiting on the other side to immediately send him back to Turkey. The soldiers, he said, fired warning shots at him and the others and they forced the group to lie prone on the ground, where they remained for half an hour in the rain. The Greek soldiers, he says, took their documents and mobile phones and then brought them to the police station.

"We were locked away in a cell that was already overflowing with 100 or 200 people. Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis,” says Ruhabi. One of the Syrians, he recalls, asked for help for his sick friend. "Let him die. We have enough graves for you,” one of the guards responded, according to Ruhabi. On Saturday morning, he relates, the soldiers pulled him and the other refugees out of the cell, drove them to the border and put them in a boat back across the Evros into Turkey. Ultimately, Ruhabi didn’t even spend 24 hours in Europe.

He is now back in Istanbul, where we met him in a shisha bar. He’s back where he started, and he feels cheated twice over: once by Erdogan, who had told the refugees that the path to Europe was open, and once by the Europeans, who talk about human rights but who drive away refugees with violence. "The truth is that nobody wants us,” Ruhabi says.

The fact that Erdogan is able to so easily manipulate Europe on the refugee issue isn’t just because of the Turkish leader’s lack of scruples, though. The EU is also to blame, having failed in the years since 2016, when the refugee deal with Ankara was established, to create a functioning, humane asylum system.

Nowhere is that more apparent than on the island of Lesbos. When refugees arrived on the shores of the island on Monday, they found themselves confronted with unadulterated hatred. One of the inflatable boats floated toward the pier in the port city of Thermi, but hundreds of locals had gathered to prevent the refugees from landing, screaming at the boat and raising their fists.

"Stop fucking like rabbits, you whores,” one man screamed at a pregnant woman. A second pushed the boat away from the pier with a stick. The majority of Lesbos residents has long since lost all patience with the government in faraway Athens.

For years, chaos has reigned on the easternmost Greek islands. In many places, the refugee camps are camps in name only, having long since transformed into wildly expanding tent cities. In Camp Moria, an EU-run site on Lesbos, almost 20,000 people have overrun a facility originally planned for just 2,840. In winter, the tents are no match for the cold, the rain and, sometimes, the snow and fires break out regularly as people try to stay warm with fires and gas stoves. Gangs have also formed in the camp. According to the organization Doctors Without Borders, there are frequent suicide attempts, even among the children.

An Abysmal Situation

The Europeans could have prevented the abysmal situation. The pact with Turkey bought the EU quite a bit of time, with the number of new arrivals dropping dramatically. But Europe did nothing and the original plan, according to which rapid asylum procedures were to be established on the islands, was never implemented. There was a lack of personnel to examine the asylum applications. There was a lack of judges to rule on them. Instead of several weeks, asylum-seekers are forced to wait months, or even years, for a decision on their application. Furthermore, courts have prevented rejected asylum-seekers from being sent back to Turkey – so the islands have transformed into prisons.

The EU, though, seemed not entirely unhappy with the system. After all, it served as a deterrent to those who might be contemplating the voyage. But since last summer, increasing numbers of migrants have once again begun ferrying across to the Greek islands from the Turkish mainland, despite the catastrophic conditions in the camps. In total, about 60,000 asylum-seekers reached Greece last year across the water, the most since 2016. This time, though, they cannot continue their journeys to the north since the border with Macedonia is closed. The result is that just a moderate increase in the number of refugees reaching Greece has triggered a collapse of the entire system.

Prime Minister Mitsotakis has resorted to toughness in his effort to get the problem under control. He curtailed the rights enjoyed by refugees and human rights organizations have repeatedly reported illegal "pushbacks,” in which people are sent right back to Turkey without a proper hearing. Mitsotakis even announced a plan to install barriers in the Aegean to block refugee boats.

The EU has essentially ignored the difficulties faced by the Greeks. Eastern European countries like Hungary and Poland have successfully prevented the Europe-wide distribution of refugees from Greece, as Brussels once promised to do. Now, though, with Erdogan having opened up the Turkish border, the EU can no longer ignore the precarious situation in Greece.

Indeed, in addition to the overcrowding, vigilante groups have begun forming in Greece, seeking to take the law into their own hands. In the Greek-Turkish border town of Feres, some 700 men gathered in front of the city hall on Tuesday evening. Many of them were wearing uniforms; there were hardly any women in sight. The men were from the towns and villages on the Greek side of the Evros and they wanted to discuss how to stop migrants who managed to make it across the river.

Their plan was to form groups of 10 and to go on patrols for eight hours at a time. "First the military came, then the police and then us,” says Anthanasios Pemousis, the mayor of a neighboring town.

A New Deal with Erdogan?

Despite such measures, Greek officials are concerned that the number of refugees reaching the islands will climb once the weather begins to improve. Should that happen, more asylum-seekers would soon begin arriving in Northern Europe as well. In February alone, Greek border guards stopped fully 3,000 people trying to make their way north along the so-called Balkan Route.

European politicians now find themselves facing challenging questions. Should they open the border to those stranded in no-man’s-land between the Greek and Turkish borders, potentially attracting more refugees to attempt the trip? Or should they negotiate a new deal with Erdogan?

The coalition government in Berlin is in agreement that no additional refugees should be brought to Europe, instead favoring an increase in aid to Turkey. The German government wants to keep the EU’s external borders closed and, should it become necessary, internal EU borders as well.

It wasn’t all that long ago, in summer 2018, that the question as to whether refugees could be stopped at the German-Austrian border almost led to a collapse of the coalition in Berlin. This time around, though, Merkel is in agreement with Interior Minister Horst Seehofer. In a meeting of parliament conservatives on Tuesday afternoon, Seehofer said: "The borders of Europe are not open to the refugees from Turkey. That is also true of our own borders.” According to those present at the meeting, Merkel did not contradict him.

The chancellor is determined to prevent the EU-Turkey deal from collapsing completely. In comments to conservative lawmakers, she proposed giving Turkey more money, earmarked primarily for schools and teachers. Berlin is also open to providing financial support for the refugees at the Turkish-Greek border area.

Waiting Out the Crisis

Most other EU countries, however, are unwilling to pump more money into the EU-Turkey deal. Europe will not negotiate "with a knife at its throat,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. German Ambassador to the EU Michael Clauss ran up against the same attitude at a Monday meeting with his counterparts around Europe and EU officials. In representing Berlin’s position, Clauss sought to explain Erdogan’s position by highlighting the domestic pressure he is under and the external pressure from Idlib. He also tried to get support for adding a discussion of further payments to Turkey to the agenda of the next EU summit in mid-March. His fellow ambassadors were not particularly excited about the idea, and the Greek representative harshly criticized Erdogan’s "attempted blackmail.”

The fronts were similar when EU interior ministers gathered for a Wednesday evening meeting in Brussels. Behind closed doors, Seehofer sought to water down a passage of the closing statement in which Turkey was to be "condemned” for using migrants for political aims. Berlin is convinced that the EU needs Erdogan. Seehofer said that criticism was fine, but that he was adamantly opposed to condemning an entire country.

It looks almost as though the EU is trying to simply wait out the crisis. As it always does, really. Yet a new European approach to migration is badly needed. The year 2015 clearly showed that it is basically impossible to get all 27 EU member states to agree on a single course of action when it comes to asylum policy. As such, the German government should try to put together a coalition of the willing with countries like France, Spain, Portugal and Luxembourg – countries that are prepared to take on responsibility for those fleeing violence back home.

Such a coalition could serve to relieve the pressure that is currently being felt in Greece. And it wouldn’t even require an opening of the border to Turkey. It would be enough to simply accept refugees from the overcrowded camps on the Greek islands, as several German cities have long been demanding.

Sooner or later, though, the Europeans will also have to speak with Erdogan, as difficult as that might be. They should learn from the mistakes made in 2016. It is not enough to make promises to an autocrat and hope that he will solve the refugee problem. EU member states have to get more involved in the protection of refugees inside Turkey and they must make more resources available to the resettlement program. And, Europe has to get more involved in efforts to implement a cease-fire in Idlib.

The past several days have shown just how thin the veneer of civilization is Europe is, says Berlin-based political consultant Gerald Knaus, who is considered to be the architect of the EU refugee deal with Turkey. "If we now abandon the right of asylum, then it is just a matter of time before the next state of emergency leads to the elimination of the freedom of assembly or other fundamental rights.”