Burak Bekdil, writing fellow at the Middle East Forum and the Gatestone Institute, spoke to an August 23 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the prospect of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan orchestrating a new migrant crisis in Europe and how Europe can stop it.
In the wake of Afghanistan's collapse, a surge of illegal Afghan migrants flooding into Turkey via Iran is likely. Although many Afghan migrants are fleeing "because they fear for their lives," few have shown much interest in going to "the most natural first and last stop for them" – Pakistan, which is closest and shares common religious, linguistic, and cultural ties with the migrants. What draws them to Turkey is the "economic motivation" of moving on to Europe from there. "Turkey is the only gateway for them to reach European soil."
Conditions in Turkey itself are hardly ideal for migrants, said Bekdil. Turkey is already crowded with "3.5 million registered Syrian migrants" who fled their neighboring country's civil war, and there is "massive discontent" among the Turkish population about their presence. In Istanbul and Ankara, Syrians live in "predominantly Syrian ghettoes." Syrians account for more than 20% of the population in three provinces of southeastern Turkey. In the province of Kilis, they make up 74.3% of the total population. "Turks are discovering in a very unpleasant way, the virtues of a fresh surge of nativism." A recent riot in Ankara between Turks and Syrians, described by Bekdil as a "Muslim on Muslim pogrom," resulted in loss of life and mass arrests. The anticipated surge of Afghan refugees could spark even greater unrest.
But Bekdil expects Erdoğan to exploit any influx of Afghan migrants to the hilt. Like the Syrians, the Afghans will become "a potential source of new jihadist warriors fighting mercenary wars on behalf of Erdogan's neo-Ottoman ambitions."
Likewise, Erdoğan will "use the Afghan card as a bargaining chip in Turkey's troubled relations with the EU" in much the same way that he employed Syrian migrants. In 2015, Erdoğan facilitated the illegal entry of over 800,000 migrants from Turkish soil to Europe by way of the Aegean Sea and Greece. A March 2016 Turkey-EU agreement led Erdoğan to turn off the tap. In 2020 he attempted, but failed, to turn it on again by transporting thousands of migrants to the Turkish border with Greece (which was better equipped this time around to stop infiltrations).
Bekdil emphasized that Europe should stand up to the threat of a new Turkish-orchestrated flood of migrants. "I think pushback is a must," he said. "Once you're really soft on border protection that word goes through millions of potential refugees who would be encouraged to cross the border ... [P]ushback policy discourages new arrivals."
"Pushback policy discourages new arrivals."
Greek and EU agencies should ready themselves to protect both land and sea borders with Turkey to withstand the coming wave of "tens of thousands" of Afghans, "some of whom could be radicals disguised as innocent refugees fleeing the Taliban."
Israel's "technological know-how" could provide the means to better protect the Greek island borders if Athens can obtain "political and financial support" from the EU, said Bekdil. In particular, Israel could supply the kind of advanced drone technology needed by Greece's naval patrols to "push back illegal immigrants."
"What needs to be done is simple. Just push back illegal immigrants."
Blunting Erdoğan's ability to flood Europe with refugees will likely make other issues of dispute between Ankara and the West more manageable. "The more Europe gets prepared to protect its borders from migration from Turkey, which is 99% via Greece and Greek islands, the more Europe will have leverage on Turkey and Erdoğan's threats," said Bekdil. "So what needs to be done is simple. Just push back illegal immigrants."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.