Thousands of migrants and refugees have been gathering on the Turkey-Greece border after Turkey announced that it would no longer stop refugees from passing to Europe. Photo: NurPhoto

As Ankara and Brussels look to reach a new deal on refugees in time for a March 26 EU summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is keeping a key card in play.

Turkey’s refugee population, namely Syrians welcomed at the height of its support for the rebellion next door, are now seen as both a burden and a tool to be used in negotiations.

For the past two weeks, Ankara has encouraged or coerced its migrant population to seek entry to Europe’s eastern flank, Greece.

“We have decided, effectively immediately, not to stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe by land or sea,” a Turkish official told Reuters on condition of anonymity on February 27.

“All refugees, including Syrians, are now welcome to cross into the European Union,” the official added.

Within hours, thousands of refugees decided to make the journey, encouraged by free buses operating from migrant-populated districts like Fatih in Istanbul to various points on the Greek border.

Kicked in the stomach

Two of those refugees were 35-year-old “Ahmed,” a Homs native, and his wife, neither of whom hold the critical Kimlik ID card, which cuts them off from benefits in Turkey.

“When we heard the news circulating about the Turkish government’s decision to open the doors of immigration to Europe, we immediately rushed to go to Istanbul. Despite us not having a Kimlik card, or any permission to travel, they allowed us to board Turkish buses with our Syrian identity cards,” Ahmed told Asia Times.

Once in Istanbul, they boarded a free bus offered to refugees, which linked them up with other migrants making the same journey.

“When we arrived to Edirne, we were stopped at a Turkish military checkpoint, and we waited until other buses loaded with refugees arrived,” Ahmed recounted.

Then, a Turkish police car led the convoy of buses to the very edge of the land border – a testament to the organized nature of the operation.

“They took us off the buses in a deserted area and prevented us from filming, then they took us to one of the gathering points on the Turkish-Greek border, where we saw some refugees setting fire to get a little warm,” he said.

Ahmed and his wife decided to wait until the morning to attempt the crossing. At that stage, he says the Turkish gendarme was charging individuals 100 lira each for a rubber dinghy ride across a river separating the two sides.

It was only a 10-minute walk from the other side to the Greek border, where Ahmed and his wife found the Greek police were waiting for them.

“They started beating everyone with batons, women and men, and they took their belongings and money,” said Ahmed, who fled with his wife back to the other side.

“When we got back to Turkish territory, we saw a number of smugglers, who started asking us whether we wanted to cross again to Greece in exchange for money, but we refused,” said Ahmed’s wife.

“The strange issue is that the smugglers were standing with the Turkish gendarme, without any fear.”

Realizing the endeavor was doomed, she and her husband decided to return to Izmir the next day, only to find the Turkish police were not allowing people to return.

“They forced us to board buses again in order to take us to another border point,” she told Asia Times.

“I started screaming and crying, and when I refused to board the bus, one of the gendarmes slapped me on the face and kicked me in the stomach, so they finally succeeded in forcing us to the desired border point.”

Ahmed and his wife finally managed to escape, after walking for about an hour and a half to a busier area where they could secure a taxi to Istanbul. The taxi driver charged them 1,500 Turkish lira, or nearly $250.

‘I wish I died’

Aleppo native, Ali, 45, also says he was offered a free bus ride to the border, which he boarded with his wife and young children.

“We decided to make this journey despite its risks and the winter cold, as we saw it as an opportunity that would not come again,” Ali told Asia Times.

But on the other side of the river at the border, Ali says Greek police confiscated the family’s belongings and sent them back.

Like Ahmed, Ali was compelled to pay for a taxi back to Istanbul.

“We told him that we would pay him as soon as we got there, but on our way back we were stopped by a Turkish army checkpoint, and they forced us to return to the same border point,” he recounts.

Too exhausted to make another attempt, the family waited it out until they were finally allowed back.

Ali’s nine-year-old son, Ammar, says he wished he would have died on the border.

“I don’t want to go back to my old life in Turkey. I am sick of working after school for getting 150 lira ($25) a week, and I’m tired of being bullied at school for being Syrian.”

Uighurs pressured again

Interviews with multiple refugees and eyewitnesses who arrived to the border city of Edirne from other Turkish cities, suggest the number of Syrians was small compared to the numbers of Afghan and Iranian asylum seekers, as well as the beleagured Chinese Uighurs.

“Abu Muhammad”, a 37-year-old Uighur who settled in Istanbul’s Fatih district with his wife and children about a year ago to escape Chinese government repression, was one of them.

“At first, I felt happy in Turkey, but the difficult conditions of life and the high prices, in addition to the racism that was caused by the spread of the coronavirus, all of that made me think about leaving Turkey,” he told Asia Times.

Together with a group of other Uighur families, they traveled to the border town of Edirne on March 3.

They slept overnight on the border.

“It was very cold. In the morning some refugees tried to cross, but the Greek border guards replied with tear gas and no one was able to cross,” he said.

The families decided to return, but were prevented by the Turkish gendarme from boarding buses back. After being returned to the border point once, Abu Mohammed says his family finally managed to escape via a more expensive taxi.

Erdogan pulls back

Last Friday, after more than 1,700 migrants were allowed to cross the Aegean to Lesbos and other Greek islands, Erdogan ordered the Turkish coastguard to halt further crossings.

Free buses have also been halted, after more than 10,000 people were estimated to have crossed through to reach EU members Greece and Bulgaria this month.

“I understand that Turkey is facing a very big challenge regarding Idlib,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday, referring to recent violence in the neighboring Syrian province.

More than 30 Turkish soldiers were killed in Syria late last month, sparking outcry from Erdogan’s rivals and renewed anger against Syrian refugees.

“President Erdogan and his government are not expressing this dissatisfaction in a dialogue with us as the European Union, but rather on the back of the refugees. For me, that’s not the way to go forward,” added Merkel.

EU leaders are demanding Ankara stick to the terms of a 2016 deal, which pledged billions of euros in exchange for Ankara keeping migrants at bay.

But Erdogan’s administration, which accuses Brussels of not holding up its end of the bargain, is looking to negotiate a better deal in the wake of renewed violence in Idlib.

Turkey’s tactics of the past two weeks offer a window into what it could be willing to do to achieve that.