Greece and Turkey are two neighbors best known for their antagonism. A history of military skirmishes, population exchanges, and deeply divergent cultural and religious views wedge the two apart. Over the last six months, however, Greece and Turkey have tacitly colluded to deliver a staggering load of human cargo to Western Europe. The refugee crisis is, in many ways, a phenomenon propelled by choices made in Athens and Ankara.
The Hellenic Coast Guard was accused of brutalizing refugees and pushing them back into Turkish waters, rather than processing them according to European Union regulations only last summer. Meanwhile, the Turkish Coast Guard Command, which signed a memorandum of understanding to share intelligence and training less than two years ago, has virtually stopped arresting smugglers.
Four major factors help explain the transformation that made Greece and Turkey go from frontline warriors—coordinating on land and sea to lock out the rest of the world—to laissez-faire observers of the migrant crisis: Syriza’s ascendance to power liberalized Greece’s immigration policy, EU-enforced austerity politics stoked Greek frustration toward other member-states, flagging efforts by Turkish authorities to crack down on smugglers overwhelmed Greek authorities, and Turkey’s long-term strategy to force Europe to do more for Muslim communities have all played significant roles in both countries’ reluctance to stem the flow of refugees along Europe’s borders. If both nations were not hostile toward what they view as EU arrogance, these erstwhile rivals on the Aegean might still be policing their coasts.
CHANGE AT THE TOP
Syriza’s ascendance to power last January signaled the electorate’s rejection austerity politics. Before the election, immigration policy was not a major issue. European parliamentarian and Syriza party member Dimitrios Papadimoulis said that Greece would seek a “common European immigration policy with obligations and rights” and also more money from the European Union for border security. During the party’s first month in power, however, Syriza Deputy Immigration Minister Tasia Christodoulopoulou announced that the government would turn refugee detention facilities into welcome centers, and would discontinue Operation Xenios Zeus, an aggressive policy that identified and deported illegal migrants.
On April 14, the Greek government declared that all Syrian refugees in the nation would receive documents for onward travel to Europe. Migration to Greece, which had been increasing for months, exploded after the announcement. According to UN Refugee Commission data, between April and May, refugee and migrant sea arrivals to Greece increased by 40 percent. Astonishingly, between April and August, arrivals increased 721 percent. More refugees arrived in July than in all of 2014.
The central government had no plan for handling the refugee surge—at least not one they shared with the affected cities’ mayors. When asked what would happen to refugees once they were registered, Christodoulopoulou said they would “simply disappear” to “Europe,” although she did not know how. When the mayors laughed incredulously, she added, “I control entry not exit.”
The Greek islands closest to Turkey (Chios, Kos, Lesbos, Leros, and Samos) were complaining as early as 2013 that they were being targeted by migrants for entry into the country, and that that they could not handle the influx without more help from the national government or the European Union. By this summer, the islands were inundated with foreign nationals and were relying largely on private citizens and the Greek Orthodox Church to help handle humanitarian needs. Authorities from the national government were elusive and provided neither supplies nor systematic guidance. Violent clashes between migrants and local officials then broke out in Kos.
George Hadzimarkos, prefect of the southern Aegean, summed up Athens’ role in the crisis. The “central government isn’t doing anything,” he said. “And it’s not because of the lingering financial crisis. It’s because no government has cared about these far-flung islands, ever.”
Throughout its stint in power, Syriza has mobilized and radicalized popular frustration with the European Union. Greek Prime Minister and Syriza head Alexis Tsipras has routinely portrayed Greece as a victim whose sovereignty and national interests have been compromised by the European Union. Tsipras’ rhetoric was most pointedly directed at Germany, the country most closely associated with the belt tightening programs that the European Union handed down to Athens.
Nikos Kotzias, Greek foreign minister and member of the right-wing Independent Greeks party, first suggested a link between Greek immigration policy and negotiations with the European Union on the sidelines of an informal EU meeting in Riga last March. According to a Greek TV station, Kotzias said, “There will be millions of immigrants and thousands of jihadists who will come to Europe” if no deal is reached.
Kotzias was far from the only Greek politician willing to assert a link between the nation’s immigration policy and its dissatisfaction with EU austerity measures. During an ANEL meeting, Defense Minister and ANEL president Panos Kammenos warned, “If [EU ministers] deal a blow to Greece, then they should know the migrants will get papers to go to Berlin. If Europe leaves us in the crisis, we will flood it with migrants, and it will be even worse for Berlin if in that wave of millions of economic migrants there will be some jihadists of the Islamic State too.”
Soon after the government announcement that Syrian refugees would receive travel documents, Greek Interior Minister Nickos Voutsis said that refugees should be given three-month EU residency permits so they could get to their favored destination—typically Germany—a proposal that directly contradicted EU rules.
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
The Evros River serves as a meeting point between northeastern Greece and northwestern Turkey. The shallow, fast-moving waterway used to be one of the most popular entry points from Turkey to Greece for undocumented people seeking EU entry. But in August 2012, the Greek government (with help from Frontex) initiated Operation Aspida (Shield) by erecting a six and a half-mile steel fence topped with thermal imaging cameras, and augmenting its border police arsenal with helicopters, night vision goggles, and search dogs. Arrests dropped from 6,000 in July to 45 just six months later.
On the Turkish side, villagers endorsed the plan for a fence because people heading to Greece were destroying their crops. Ankara did not take issue with Operation Aspida, either: In May 2012, the Turkish government signed a memorandum of understanding with Frontex to increase cooperation on sealing Europe’s borders and received over 70 million euro from the European Union between 2007 and 2013 to improve its own detention centers.
In December 2013, Turkey signed a readmission agreement with the European Union, obligating it to take back any Turkish or third-country nationals who enter EU countries from Turkish territory. The Law on Foreigners and International Protection came into force in April 2014, harmonizing Turkish law with European norms governing asylum seekers. Thus the European Union, Ankara, and Athens were now rowing in the same direction regarding illegal migration. That is, until 2015.
An unintended consequence of the blocked land border was an increase in smuggling routes by sea. The number of undocumented migrants moving from Turkey to Greece over water has increased yearly. In response, the Hellenic Coast Guard has turned back boats back into Turkish waters through a tactic known as “push backs,” which violates EU rules as well as international law. In January 2014, a vessel towing 28 migrants into Turkish territorial waters at high speeds caused the smaller boat to flip, drowning 12 people.
Turkish coast guard data reveal a month-over-month increase in the number of immigrants it has detained at sea this year. As of September 8, the number stands at 50,514 detainees. This number likely includes repeat arrests, however, since Syrian refugees (the majority of this year’s undocumented migrants) who are either detained mid-crossing or pulled out of the sea are not typically deported. Instead they are let go.
In Turkey, Syrians are uniquely classified as temporary guests of the government. Last December, Ankara granted new services to Syrian refugees, such as access to healthcare and education. This has improved conditions for the over two million Syrians in the country, but falls short of offering permanent asylum. Although Turkey has been generous in letting Syrian refugees travel freely, it has limited their ability to settle and work in the country, which makes them desperate to leave. The Washington Post, for example, identified one Syrian who tried to get to Greece as many as nine times by sea in just 12 days.
Turkish coast guard statistics also reveal that Turkey is paying less attention to smugglers. In 2014, the force detained 106 smugglers (or one for every 141 migrants). This year, that ratio is 1:500. Only 101 smugglers have been detained in 2015 so far despite the number of migrants crossing through the nation has risen drastically. One senior military police chief has said that the reduced policing of smugglers is the result of Greek and Turkish coast guards focusing on saving lives and preventing travelers from drowning.
Whatever the reasons, one thing is certain: Greece’s welcoming stance on refugees and Turkey’s failure to target smugglers has led to a collapse of migration prevention on the Aegean Sea.
Turkey assiduously avoids the topic of smugglers in the media. In a CNN interview, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan blamed the West for the death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose image galvanized world opinion. For Turkish authorities, facilitating the exit of refugees—even if only by turning a blind eye to their exodus—is politically expedient. Turkey hosts a staggering number of displaced people within its borders, with more arriving every day. Few in Ankara imagined the war in Syria would drag on as long as it has, and the Turkish economy is not as robust today as it was a few years ago. New pressures—such as the ongoing war with Kurdish forces and airstrikes against the Islamic State (also called ISIS) in Syria and the PKK in Iraq—make hosting refugees an even heavier burden.
But there is also an ideological factor behind Turkey’s willingness to facilitate migration for refugees and economic migrants: Erdogan and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have pursued a foreign policy that projects Turkish influence internationally, especially through religious institutions. That Turkey is now prepared to transport Middle Eastern refugees keen to resettle in Europe helps accomplish that goal in the view of Turkish elites. Hurriyet Daily reported that Davutoglu told refugee representatives on September 19, “We understand the people who want to go to Europe from Turkey or any other country. We will not stop anyone who is willing to leave. We are ready to send you even by planes, not by land to any country that will accept you.” By facilitating the travel of “our Syrian siblings,” rather than blocking their exit or arresting smugglers, the Turkish government creates a new constituency in Europe. A State Department source who covers Turkey confirmed, “Davutoglu, especially has an interest in spreading Islam,” although, without clearance to discuss the situation, he did not want to be named.
One of Erdoğan’s priorities since he became president in 2014 has been expansion of an international mosque-building campaign, one aimed at projecting Turkish presence in Europe. There are 18 projects currently under construction, including buildings in Greece, Romania, and the United Kingdom, among others. In Germany, Turkey is financing the country’s largest mosque in the city of Cologne, which has 30 already. Over three million Turks live in Germany—the largest Turkish population abroad, and Germany’s largest foreign national group. During a visit to the Turkish community last year, Erdogan took on the thorny issue of assimilation, urging that Turks “don’t compromise our language, religion, and culture.”
Erdogan regularly criticizes Europe for what he perceives as its Islamophobic tendencies, and Ankara’s mosque program is but one way to combat it. As Erdogan told Turkey’s diplomatic corps in January, “The Islamophobia, which we constantly draw attention to and warn of, represents a serious threat in Europe…Those who shake their finger and reprimand Turkey must see that they are dealing with a new Turkey, big Turkey.” Creating a new, big Turkey is accomplished by helping to resettle a large, sympathetic community of Syrian “brothers and sisters”—the pronoun often used by Turkish leaders.
In a September 9 Guardian op-ed, Davutoglu warned European leaders that their desire “to create a Christian ‘fortress Europe’ may be attractive to those who have understood nothing about European history, but it will not work” because the walls have already crumbled. In a meeting this week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting, the Greek and Turkish prime ministers agreed to expand cooperation on migration, but they signaled no plans to reinvigorate pre-2015 repulsion tactics.
With the new Syriza governing coalition sworn into power on September 23, one that is almost identical to its last iteration, one should not expect change in Greece’s support for open migration. Syriza’s policy amounts to non-compliance with the Dublin Regulation, requiring EU countries to process refugees for asylum in the country where they land. After his most recent victory, Tsipras blamed Europe for shirking its responsibility in dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, much as Davutoglu told the UN General Assembly that Europe is failing to shoulder the burden. Struggling to cope with the humanitarian crisis on its soil, few in Europe are pointing out Greek and Turkish culpability in this disaster. Meanwhile, 4,000 people leave Turkey for the Greek islands each day.