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Refugee misery and Covid-19

In the middle of this week, it briefly looked as if Greece and Turkey were on the verge of an armed exchange of blows: last Wednesday, two Turkish F-16 bombers entered Greek airspace unannounced over the Evros border river and partly flew over the Greek villages of the border region at an altitude of just a few hundred meters. Shortly before, a boat of the Turkish coast guard had already demonstratively rammed a speedboat of the Greek coast guard off the Greek island of Kos and damaged the railing. From now on, such incidents would be the norm in the Aegean, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared angrily in Ankara, mocking: “we will hunt them down and they will evaporate.”

Refugee misery and Covid-19

Unprecedented Escalation

Greek-Turkish relations have always been fraught with conflict throughout their common history. The tensions of the last few days, however, testify to a new quality. Greek politicians of all stripes wondered with concern how far the Turkish president wanted to push this course of constant escalation. Erdogan is counting on a” military accident”, the renowned daily newspaper” Kathimerini " titled its front page. The fact that some of those involved in the “incidents in the Aegean”, which were proudly proclaimed in Ankara, could lose their nerve is also a source of concern in Athens today.

Interestingly, the latest escalation is not related to a bilateral conflict, but only to the war in the distant Syrian province of Idlib. According to official data from Ankara, 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in a bombing raid by the Russian air force in Idlib on the night of 28 February. At least 70 others were injured, some seriously. The massacre in Idlib, according to opposition Internet platform Ahval “one of the darkest episodes in the history of the modern Republic of Turkey”, was for the Turkish soul “only with the Trauma of the Korean war in the 1950s” or similar. Did the Turkish President want to turn the public’s attention away from Idlib and the failure of his own Syria policy, as the Turkish commentator Yavuz Baydar judged?

One day after the blow in Idlib, the Turkish president declared that his country’s border with the EU was open to migrants and refugees. This statement was broadcast by Turkish TV channels and radio programs for days. Thousands of refugees made their way to the Greek-Turkish border, others were even transported there by buses of the Turkish police. According to estimates by the press, more than 13,000 people had already gathered in the first days of March in the small strip of land between Kastanies and Pazarkule.

A sign of the EU border

Watered by the Evros Delta border river, this triangle of countries, already one of the most beautiful areas in the area due to its abundance of water and vegetation, was to become the scene of a merciless demonstration of power between Turkey on the one hand and beyond the border fence of the Greek and European leaders since the beginning of March.

The EU wants to prevent a repeat of the refugee wave of 2015 at all costs. The conservative Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is also committed to this principle. As early as March 1, he ordered the Greek border guards to deny refugees access to Greece in all circumstances. Since then, water cannons, tear gas and flash grenades have been used en masse at the border fence – also against defenseless women and children. Refugees who nevertheless managed to cross the border river were arrested, stripped of their possessions, some of their clothing, and repatriated to Turkey. This is a gross violation of applicable international law.

However, the Conservative politician Mitsotakis does not need to worry about the possible consequences of these violations. His hard line is currently in line with the policy of the Conservative leadership in Brussels. Significantly, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised Kastanies as a “shield of the EU border"during a short visit to the Greek border area. Since mid-March, Frontex’s forces have been expanded: soldiers from Poland, Austria, Germany, Cyprus and the Netherlands are to protect the “fortress EU” in the border area with Turkey against refugees.

Transformation of Greek society

Kyriakos Mitsotakis also suspended the right of every person seeking protection to seek asylum for a full month on 1 March. The majority of the EU states, but also the Greek public, perceived with a shrug that he also violated applicable international law. The majority of the Greek population somehow sees itself in an unexplained war with Turkey. It does not regard the crowd in front of the border fence as people in need, but merely as an Instrument in the hands of the Turkish President, primarily to destabilise Greece and, if necessary, to extort more EU funds.

According to Stratis Valamios, a 43-year-old fisherman from the Greek island of Lesbos, Greek society has changed profoundly since 2015. As he told The Press, in 2015 he had actively participated in the rescue of those fleeing from Turkey with his 4.5-Meter-long fishing boat. Night after night he looked for refugee boats and experienced the same tragic fate as in a recurring Film: mothers “who literally threw their babies and toddlers into my boat just before their smuggling boat sank in the water”. Every time he had to suppress his emotions when he left the children to the care of the women waiting on the beach in his hometown of Skala, before he took his boat out to sea again to pick up possible survivors. At that time, most of the inhabitants of the island would have helped, he explains. After all, they were aware of the plight of refugees, since most of the inhabitants of Lesbos were themselves descendants of Greek refugees who came from the western shore of today’s Turkey. In the first days of March this year, however, he did not recognize his island. Right-wing extremists had brought Lesbos under their control, beaten up members of helping NGOs and the press, and prevented the refugee boats from mooring for days. One speaks vaguely of a” migrant Invasion " and in reality leaves protection seekers and Islanders alone with their fate, he commented bitterly. Five years after the wave of refugees in 2015, Fischer Stratis Valamios resigned.

For five years, EU policy on Lesbos had wanted to set a deterrent example for potential refugees. Athens apparently agreed. Lesbos, but also Samos, Leros and Chios in the Ostägäis, gradually turned into deterrent examples: their reception camps now house a total of 42,000 people who vegetate without prospects under inhumane conditions.

After the escalation in Kastanies, Brussels decided to act: as EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Thursday, a “coalition of the willing” should take 1,600 unaccompanied minors from the camps. In addition, the voluntary return of 5,000 migrants to their home countries will be supported with a cash payment of 2000 euros each. The EU obviously does not want or cannot see the urgency of the problem. In view of the spread of COVID-19, the organisation” Médecins Sans Frontières " (MSF) has called for the immediate evacuation of all EU refugee camps on the Greek islands. The appalling living conditions in the crowded Hotspots are an ideal breeding ground for the Virus. “Allowing asylum seekers to live under such conditions as part of the European deterrent policy has been irresponsible until now, now it borders on a criminal act”, write the MSF in its public statement and call on the EU to act quickly if asylum seekers and Islanders are protected.

Human scum no one wants

“We will continue the practice on our border until the EU has noticeably fulfilled all Turkey’s expectations,” declared the Turkish president in the middle of this week, comparing the Greek approach to Kastanies with that of the National Socialists. “What they did in the Nazi Camps is also done by the Greeks on behalf of the West as paid Legionnaires of the West.“At the same time, he had his police block the refugees’ way back to Turkey. Refugees cannot enter the EU through the Greek border fence and they cannot enter Turkey. They are trapped.

Human rights activist Leman yurtsever visited the Turkish border area: “the majority of those gathered were women and children,” she wrote in the Kurdish agency ANF. “There were pregnant women, sick and disabled people. In the grounds had no one ceiling. They were people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Uzbekistan. Many of them said that after the death of Turkish soldiers in Idlib, the hatred of even longtime neighbors for the strangers increased noticeably. “Get out,” they said. According to Erdogan’s statement, the refugees have indeed given up their homes, distributed or sold all their possessions, they have gone to the border in order not to return. They are now stuck in a limbo.“They are treated as human scum that no one wants.

The Turkish president has announced a summit in Istanbul next Tuesday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and possibly British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are to attend. Erdogan wants to negotiate with the big European countries on the resumption of negotiations on Visa freedom, on the opening of new chapters in the EU accession process, on the modernisation of the customs union and of course on additional financial support. Otherwise, he said, “the influx of irregular migrants coming to Europe will not be limited to Greece, but will spread across the entire Mediterranean.”