Stopping coronavirus spread in Syrian refugee camps is 'mission impossible,' Turkish ambassador says

Dan De Luce

WASHINGTON — Turkey's ambassador to the United States, Serdar Kilic, says the European Union must do more to help his country absorb an influx of refugees from the war in neighboring Syria after Ankara said it would not stop refugees from leaving Turkey to enter E.U. territory.

Kilic also said his country had taken steps to bolster security on its border with Iran to counter the threat of the coronavirus but that trying to prevent the spread of the virus in refugee camps in Syria would be a "mission impossible."

"We have reached the limits of our capabilities" to accept refugees, Kilic told reporters. "We told them, if you want to leave Turkey, you are free to do so. We have been hosting those people around eight years in Turkey."

Greece and Bulgaria, on Turkey's western border, are both members of the E.U. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have tried to cross into Greece from Turkey since the Turkish government said Feb. 28 that it would no longer try to stop them from leaving its territory.

Kilic said the E.U., the U.S. and other countries had a "moral obligation" to address the flood of Syrians fleeing their homes in the face of an offensive by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces around Idlib. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's bid to recapture territory in Idlib, supported by Russian air power, has displaced nearly 1 million people, according to the United Nations. Many of the civilians are sleeping out in the open or living in tents in freezing temperatures.

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Kilic spoke as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held talks with E.U. and NATO officials in Brussels to discuss how to resolve the flow of migrants from Syria.

The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has said the situation at the Greek-Turkish border was the result of "politically motivated pressure."

Image: Refugees at the Turkey-Greece border (Ozan Kose / AFP - Getty Images file)

In 2016, Turkey agreed to keep refugees from crossing into the E.U. in return for billions in aid.

But Kilic said the E.U. promised 6 billion euros in assistance and has delivered less than half of the funds.

"At this stage, at this time, we need action more than words," Kilic said.

Turkey hosts about 3.6 million refugees from Syria.

It has deployed thousands of troops to Syria and has clashed with Syrian regime forces in recent weeks, with dozens of casualties reported on both sides. Turkey and Russia agreed to a cease-fire in Idlib province last week.

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Asked what Turkey is doing to track or prevent the spread of the coronavirus among displaced Syrians fleeing their homes near the Turkish border, the ambassador said, "There are 900,000 people. How are you going to check each one of them? It's a mission impossible."

He also said Turkey had taken steps to reinforce its border with Iran against the threat of the coronavirus.