ANKARA – Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country's borders with Europe were open on Saturday, making good on a longstanding threat to let refugees into the continent as thousands of migrants gathered at the frontier with Greece.
Erdogan’s announcement that Turkey is allowing refugees and migrants to exit the country marked a dramatic departure from current policy and an apparent attempt to pressure Europe.
It came amid a military escalation in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province, where hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians are trapped between advancing Syrian government forces backed by Russia and rebel fighters supported by Turkey.
The mass displacement in Idlib has raised the possibility that Turkey might come under growing international pressure to open its now sealed border with Syria and offer refuge to masses of desperate Syrian civilians.
“We can’t handle a new wave of migration,” Erdogan said in a speech Saturday, in an apparent reference to the growing humanitarian crisis in Idlib. Nearly 950,000 displaced civilians have been pushed toward the Syrian-Turkish border amid cold winter weather.
Erdogan also said Turkey would not stand in the way of refugees and migrants who hope to head from his country to Europe.
“We will not close the gates to refugees,” Erdogan he said. “The European Union has to keep its promises. We are not obliged to look after and feed so many refugees. If you’re honest, if you’re sincere, then you need to share."
Under a 2016 deal, Turkey agreed to stem the tide of refugees to Europe in return for financial aid after more than a million people entered Europe in 2015. It has since protested that the EU has failed to honor the agreement. Erdogan has frequently threatened to “open the gates” and allow refugees and migrants to head to Europe unless more international support was provided.
Since seizing territory from Kurdish forces in a different part of Syria in October, Erdogan has also suggested resettling at least a million Syrian refugees from Turkey in that northeastern region. However, his efforts to secure funding for such a scheme have been rejected by European governments. Aid groups have also said it is still too dangerous to send refugees back to Syria.
Turkey currently hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and many fleeing war and poverty in Asia, Africa and the Middle East use it as a staging post and transit point to reach Europe, usually through neighboring Greece.
Migrants played a cat-and-mouse game with Greek border patrols throughout Friday night and into Saturday, with some cutting holes in the fence only to be turned back by tear gas and stun grenades. Greek authorities also fired tear gas to repulse attempts by the crowd to push through the border.
The vast majority were from Afghanistan and most were men, although there were also some families with young children. They took shelter during the night in abandoned buildings or small chapels in the Greek countryside before starting to walk towards northern Greek.
Erdogan's speech Saturday in Istanbul marked the first time a top Turkish official openly announced migrants would be allowed to try to cross the border, after a foreign ministry spokesman floated the idea Thursday.
It comes as tensions ratcheted up between Turkey and Syria. More than 55 Turkish troops have been killed since Turkey began sending further reinforcements into rebel-held areas of Syria earlier this month. Thousands of Turkish soldiers are new deployed inside Syria's Idlib province, which is dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants.
Turkey's Defense Ministry said late Friday that one of its soldiers was killed and two were injured by Syrian government shelling. It was the latest fatality after a deadly airstrike that killed 33 earlier this week.
NATO envoys held emergency talks Friday at the request of Turkey, a NATO member. While urging deescalation in Idlib, NATO offered no further assistance.
Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone Friday and discussed implementing agreements in Idlib, the Kremlin said.
Erdogan also spoke with other world leaders, including President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Back on the border with Greece, authorities repulsed efforts by more than 4,000 people to enter from Turkey, according to Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas. He said 66 people who managed to cross were arrested, and “they had nothing to do with Syria’s Idlib.”
Ali Nikad, a 17-year-old Iranian who made it into Greece overnight with a group of friends, said he'd spent two months in Turkey but couldn’t make ends meet, and was hoping to find his uncle who was already in Greece.
“We learned the border was open and we headed there. But we saw it was closed, and we found a hole in the fence and went through it,” Nikad said.
Kantouris reported from Kastanies, Greece. Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed to this report.