Katerina Sokou, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the DC correspondent for the Greek daily Kathimerini and SKAI-TV, spoke to Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman on March 11 about the escalating migrant crisis at the Greek-Turkish border.
"[W]e've seen in the past few weeks the way that [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoǧan has instrumentalized ... migrants and refugees to blackmail Europe" into making a host of concessions, ranging from visa liberalization for Turkish citizens entering the EU to support for his ambitions in Syria.
The Turkish government has spread "misinformation that the borders were open" to the estimated 4 million migrants and refugees it hosts, provided them with "free buses to go to the [Greek] border," and then kept them in "bad conditions" once they got there to encourage them to take the risk of violently confronting Greek border guards. Sokou said the people apprehended by the Greek authorities are mostly nationalities other than Syrians fleeing Idlib -- "Afghanis, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Iraqis, Somalis, people from Northern Africa," many of whom have resided in Turkey so long that they can speak Turkish.
The crisis is "a public health concern as well as a security concern" in light of the coronavirus pandemic, said Sokou. The "violent way that the migrants and refugees are trying to enter," evading the normal processes of crossing into a country, makes it difficult to screen them for COVID-19 infection.
Greece is urgently lobbying the EU for help managing the crisis. Specifically, it seeks several forms of help. First, the EU must hold Turkey responsible for stopping the migration into Greece, providing assistance in return for "keeping the refugees and migrants in Turkey."
Second, Greece has sought EU assistance in controlling both its land and maritime borders. On March 3, the EU announced that it would expand its deployment of European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) personnel in Greece from 530 to 630 and provide several coast guard vessels, helicopters, and thermovision vehicles (for detecting human movement). Sokou argued that interdiction of migrants should be more proactive, particularly at sea. "Why not stop them [in] Turkey before they even start?"
Finally, Greece needs help in mitigating the humanitarian crisis. In particular, Greece is pleading with the EU to share the burden of supporting some 5,000 unaccompanied refugee children in its custody. According to Sokou, this should be done not only for humanitarian reasons, but also to thwart the possibility of their falling victims to radicalization. A few European countries have recently stepped forward to accept some of them, but the EU needs a "common asylum policy" that relieves Greece and other border states of the primary burden of caring for those who end up staying in Europe.
As relations deteriorate between Greece and Turkey over the migration issue, Sokou fears that military conflict could erupt. "[Y]ou have two armies on the border pointing at each other and on high alert for weeks without end." Recent incidences of Turkish soldiers firing at Greek border guards and Greek Coast Guard vessels being hit by a Turkish Coast Guard boat off the Greek island of Kos were met by caustic boasts by President Erdogan that the Greeks "run away." Deputy Assistant Secretary Palmer of the U.S. State Department recently visited the Greek border region [of Thrace] and rightly categorized the migration pressure at the border with Turkey as "fundamentally destabilizing."
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.