Greece fears a fresh standoff on its border with Turkey after the Turkish foreign minister suggested migrants and refugees would shortly return to the frontier as the two countries emerge from coronavirus lockdowns, The Guardian reported.
Speaking to a local television station in Antalya, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said: “Due to the pandemic, the movement of migrants has slowed down. But they will definitely want to leave after the outbreak is over.”
The statement set off alarm bells in Athens, where analysts are increasingly voicing fears of an iteration of the crisis that erupted earlier this year when the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, declared the doors to Europe were open and migrants free to cross into Greece.
After a hiatus of almost three months, Greek authorities reported several boats of men, women and children landing on the shores of Lesbos last week.
Some 37,000 asylum seekers remain on the outposts in vastly overcrowded conditions that have been deplored by human rights groups.
As a precautionary measure against the coronavirus, Turkey sealed its northwestern land frontier, demarcated by the Evros River, in mid-March, but only after weeks of chaos and high drama in which thousands attempted to cross the border amid a hail of rubber bullets and teargas fired by elite forces on either side.
In recent days there has been renewed tension over moves by Athens to extend a 12.5-kilometer-long razor wire fence along the frontier in land disputed by Ankara.
“As the region gradually emerges from coronavirus lockdown, we are seeing a rise in tensions on all fronts,” said Angelos Syrigos, professor of international law at Panteion University and an MP in the governing New Democracy party. “It is clear Turkey wants to continue weaponizing migrants and refugees to extract European support for its geopolitical goals. My worry is that very soon we could see a new border crisis.”
Athens’ center right government, rallying EU support earlier this year, deployed riot police and military patrols to the land border while dispatching gunships and coastguard vessels to conduct around-the-clock patrols off the Turkish coast.
But Frontex, the EU border agency that is participating in the patrols, has reportedly also predicted that the easing of coronavirus restrictions in Turkey will likely result in thousands of migrants and refugees attempting, once again, to cross into Greece.
Internal documents seen by the German Die Welt newspaper suggested a mass movement of people towards the Greek-Turkish border and shores opposite outlying Aegean islands once internal containment measures are lifted. The document, dated May 5, indicated that 262 officers had been seconded to bolster the Evros border region.