Tens of thousands of migrants have flocked to Turkey’s northwestern frontier with Greece and Bulgaria since Turkish authorities said last week they were dropping border controls on their territory. Turkey has vowed to flood Europe with refugees, unless Europe does more to help it handle the fallout from the war in Syria.
Turkey has taken in 3.7 million Syrian refugees, and is expecting another big wave of people fleeing a Russian-backed Syrian offensive in Idlib province, where thousands of Turkish troops are supporting rebel forces. Analysts say Erdogan’s threat may also be an attempt to get greater support from the West for its Syrian offensive, in which it lost 34 troops on a single day last week.
On the European side, the borders remain closed, leaving the new arrivals at the border stranded in brutal conditions. In their attempts to enter, groups of would-be migrants have variously tried to force their way across, some reportedly throwing stones or wielding metal bars. Others have pleaded with border guards or attempted to evade border controls by wading through rivers.
On Monday, reports emerged that the current wave of migration towards Europe had turned deadly. Turkish state media reported that a 22-year-old Syrian man from Aleppo was killed when Greek border guards shot him with rubber bullets as he was attempting to sneak across the border Monday.
And Greek officials reported that a boy aged about 6 drowned when a dinghy carrying 48 migrants capsized en route to the island of Lesvos. According to reports, the vessel had been accompanied by a Turkish patrol boat while in Turkish territorial waters, before deliberately overturning to trigger a rescue operation from Greek authorities.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu claimed Monday that nearly 120,000 migrants were attempting to enter Europe, while international agencies monitoring the situation along the border say the numbers are hard to track, but are more likely in the tens of thousands.
Lanna Walsh, spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration in the Turkish border province of Edirne, told VICE News the group’s monitors had observed about 13,000 migrants at formal crossing points along the 132-mile Turkey-Greece border Saturday, and 10,000-15,000 at a single crossing the following day.
“We can safely say it’s in the tens of thousands and likely increasing,” she said. Many migrants, realizing the borders were firmly closed, are now headed to Turkey’s western borders where they are attempting to cross to the Greek islands by boat.
Greek authorities say more than 1,000 people have attempted to reach the islands by sea in recent days. Turkish officials claimed Monday the boats were being met with Greek coastguards attempting to push them back.
Many migrants have reported that Turkish officials drove them to the Greek border in buses, before directing them to where they could cross into Europe. Greece’s government has accused Ankara of orchestrating a “sudden, massive, organized and coordinated” attempt to breach the country’s borders.