(Bloomberg) -- Istanbul’s working class neighborhood of Zeytinburnu was buzzing Sunday as migrants huddled in groups debating whether to travel to the border with Greece so they could achieve their dream: to live in Europe.
Following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to open the frontier, excitement rippled through the district of about 300,000 people that’s home to young Afghans, Central Asians and Iranians, as the propaganda machines went into overdrive on both sides of the border.
Turkey said more than 100,000 people have left, but visits to both sides of the border show it’s unclear how many have crossed into Europe or got stuck in no man’s land along the frontiers with Greece and Bulgaria, and how many of them are actually from Syria. Athens said it stopped mass crossings, while the International Organization for Migration said a much smaller number than what Turkey claims has been trying to cross.
The reality on the ground does not match the rhetoric. Erdogan has played a particularly sensitive card at a time populists are beating the drum about migrants coming to Europe with diseases amid a possible pandemic of the coronavirus. European leaders including Germany, the bloc’s economic motor, are waiting to call his bluff. Meanwhile, top diplomats will meet in Brussels, though a date for that has not yet been set.
Greece has responded to the storming of the border by invoking an emergency clause of European treaties and refusing to accept asylum applications for a month. Officials have talked of an “invasion” of people waiting to board boats across the island of Lesbos. Our reporters on the Turkish coast only observed small groups of families.
“We used to get families from Syria, but now we get mainly young men,” said Georgios Arabatzakis, the village chief of Marasia, on the banks of the river that runs along the Greek-Turkish border and is called Evros in Greek and Meric in Turkish. “People here used to give refugees water and clothing, but the situation now looks like an invasion.”
Despite the rising tensions, what was clear on Sunday was that this was not yet anything on the scale of the 2015 refugee crisis when almost a million people crossed into Europe, fueling the rise of anti-immigration sentiment that changed the face of the continent’s politics.
Since Turkey suffered its biggest single-day loss of troops in decades in Syria against Russian-backed forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad in the northwestern region of Idlib, Erdogan has threatened to unleash another flood of Syrian refugees in Europe.
Whether he can is another story. Turkey is the world’s biggest host of migrants with more than 3.5 million Syrians on its soil. Erdogan has said hundreds of thousands of people are already on the move from Idlib toward Turkey and the total number could exceed 2 million. But early indications on the ground suggested Turkey is stuck with its refugee burden.
So far, there was little sign of Syrians trying to cross into Europe.
In Zeytinburnu, Emre, a 45-year-old taxi driver who normally ferries wealthy Middle Eastern tourists around Istanbul, said he had been driving mostly young Afghan men in his white Mercedes for about 150 Liras ($25) each to the city of Edirne, where they hoped to cross into Greece.
“You see all these young people,” he said, pointing to them with his chin, “they’re waiting for news from their friends. If they know others have succeeded, they’ll go. If not, they’ll keep on waiting.” He took one family of 11 to the border and then returned them to Istanbul when they realized there was no way through.
Migrants who’d listened to claims by Turkish officials that there’d be no exit checks were met with a wall of Greek police officers and soldiers waiting for them at the Evros river. There have been occasional reports of violence and people have had to contend with tear gas, which was being thrown from both sides.
With bruises on his hands and face, Zabi Parsan, an 18-year-old Afghan, said Greek security forces beat him up as he tried to cross the border and took all of his money and mobile phone. So he took a bus back to Istanbul where he’d been living for a year and found friends to pay for his return ticket. The potential for escalation is there.
At the Pazarkule gate, on the Turkish side of the border, 39-year-old Muhammed Aghram, who came from Iran to Turkey seven years ago, handed out bread he baked in his shop. “What’s shocking is that there are so many Iranians here,” he said. “I felt compelled to help them so I drove down here.”
Nearby, 18-year-old Mourad Mohammed, said he’s been wandering the streets of Istanbul unable to get work in the year since he left his native Ethiopia. “So when I heard the doors are open, I was immediately like – I’m going.” He said he’d wait by the border for a couple of more days and then go back to Istanbul if he couldn’t cross.
Smugglers on Sunday were advising crowds to forget about the land route and try the sea route – and take advantage of the loose checks by the Turkish coast guard, as well as the beautiful weather on a balmy spring-like day. One human trafficker in his early 30s said he was putting about 34 people in a boat and charging between $400-800 per person.
It’s very different to the height of the migration crisis in 2015, when his business was solid with 200 boats setting off each day.
Back in Zeytinburnu, 21-year-old Burak was hunting for passengers to carry to the border in his Ford Transit but was growing bored with the lack of business. He says he took 30 people to Yenikarpuzlu, a village on the Meric river, roughly 300 kilometers from Istanbul, and drove back a group of 13 Nigerians and Senegalese after they failed to enter Greece.
“I did the Istanbul-Edirne trip twice back and forth yesterday, but most people couldn’t cross the border,” he said. “So now the crowd here is waiting for some good news. If someone calls them and says ‘I made it to Greece,’ they will come to me and ask me to take them there.”
In the sleepy towns on the Greek side of the border, where police and military vehicles are on 24-hour patrols, local residents didn’t seem particularly alarmed at what was going on but were adamant that the EU had to take action.
“Erdogan has opened the gates to blackmail Europe,” said 65-year-old Thanassis Tseretis in his cafe in central Kastanies, a kilometer away from the border crossing. “There’s no easy solution, but European leaders need to get together and find a solution. They’ve left us all alone, these are European borders and they’ve left Erdogan to do what he wants with them.”
--With assistance from Nikos Chrysoloras and Onur Ant.
To contact the reporters on this story: Cagan Koc in Istanbul at email@example.com;Constantine Courcoulas in Athens at firstname.lastname@example.org;Ugur Yilmaz in Istanbul at email@example.com;Sotiris Nikas in Athens at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson at email@example.com, ;Benjamin Harvey at firstname.lastname@example.org, Caroline Alexander, Karl Maier
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