The children pacing behind bars or sleeping on the cold ground as the Greek winter ebbs into spring do not look like weapons. On the contrary, their faces tell of their innocence and need, victims of a war of words that erupted between the European Union and Turkey after Turkey on Feb. 28 reneged on a deal to prevent migrants and asylum seekers from travelling to the E.U.
But you would not know it from the confused and panicked messages that came out of Europe in the past week, as tens of thousands of people began to gather at the Greece-Turkey border. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who has a history of taking a hard line on migration, accused Turkey of using such people as “a weapon” and expressed outrage that Turkey would exploit human lives. Hours later, the E.U. Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, said Greece was Europe’s shield. And what does a shield protect against, if not weapons?
In the years since I wrote a book about the 2015 refugee crisis, when a million desperate people made their way to the E.U., many things remain the same: nations are still divided over how to deal with people seeking sanctuary; the bloc’s asylum system remains unreformed and not fit for purpose; warning signs of further turmoil are repeatedly ignored. What has changed is the language. For all the bloc’s failings at the height of the crisis, speeches usually touched on the importance of protecting those in need and upholding the E.U.’s moral values. Now, it is the cold, hard language of war and security – it is the borders and a nebulous ‘European way of life’ which need protecting, not people.
“The system is dehumanizing these people — this is what Europe has purposefully decided to do,” says Marco Sandrone, a field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders on the Greek island of Lesbos, where an increase in arrivals is making a dire situation even worse.
Talks in Brussels on Monday between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and E.U. officials ended without any concrete guarantees from either side, meaning that for now the men, women and children stuck at the frontiers remain caught in this geopolitical tussle.
The current standoff began at the end of February when Erdogan said he would no longer abide by a 2016 deal with Brussels to stop people leaving Turkey for the E.U. In 2015, spurred by the brutal war in Syria, just over a million people arrived in the E.U. seeking sanctuary. Nations bickered over who should take care of them; police fired tear gas at borders; far right parties capitalized on the failures saw support surge. So in 2016, the E.U. promised Turkey €6 billion ($6.8 billion) in aid, visa-free travel for its citizens into the E.U., and other trade-related incentives in return for its help stopping people leaving.
The number of people arriving in Greece plummeted in 2017, but Turkey never let its neighbors forget the power it now wielded. Whenever the E.U. tried to censure Turkey over human rights or political repression, Turkish officials would threaten to back down on the deal and let the 3.6 million Syrian refugees living there travel to the E.U. And the deal caused immense suffering. People arriving on the Greek islands were meant to have their asylum requests processed there, with rejected applicants returned to Turkey. But Greece simply did not have the processing capacity, and the island camps swelled, with more than 40,000 people now living in abysmal conditions there.
Marc Pierini, a former E.U. diplomat and now visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe think tank, said the deal was “a bizarre piece of diplomacy” that offered an array of promises on unrelated fields that the E.U. would always struggle to uphold. But for all its flaws, the E.U. – desperate to contain the rise of nationalist forces — bet all their cards on the deal. “Politicians said this is done with, we don’t have to worry too much,” Pierini says.
It was heavy fighting in the Syrian region of Idlib that pushed Erdogan to finally make good on his threats in late February. Turkey was worried about a fresh influx of refugees and frustrated by the lack of outside help in its military efforts against Russian-backed forces in Syria. Erdogan’s government also argued that the E.U. aid was never fully disbursed. The E.U. says the money went to third parties rather than the Turkish government, with more than half spent and other funds allocated for dispersal. So on Feb. 28 Erdogan encouraged refugees to head to the border with Greece. “We opened the doors,” he told Parliament. Some heeded his call, and within days a state of panic descended on the E.U, with unmistakable echoes of 2015.
Volleys of tear gas once again flew over the heads of children as riot police were deployed to a border; Greek coastguard vessels were accused of breaching international law by pushing vessels at sea back to Turkey. Greece announced that people arriving in March would get no help, resulting in confused new arrivals sleeping at Lesbos port. A BBC report showed newly arrived children detained in cages. Greece claims to have repelled 35,000 people at the land border since Feb. 28, a significant increase on the 15,000 arrivals by land from Turkey in the whole of 2019. Sandrone says they have seen a few hundred arrivals in a day by sea on Lesbos, unusually high given the winter weather conditions.
In theory, the E.U. should be prepared by now, says Vasilis Stravaridis, General Director of MSF Greece. “We are talking about five years that we have a chronic emergency — this is not something new,” he tells TIME. “There should be a holistic plan which involves all E.U. member state governments to facilitate the evacuation of all these people.”
But the bloc seems doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. There were already signs that the Turkey deal was not holding. The numbers arriving to claim asylum in Greece had been rising before Erdogan’s announcement, with around 75,000 arrivals in 2019 – the highest number since 2016. That trend emerged last summer, but there was no new agreement on processing arrivals or distributing people among other E.U. nations, should there be a dramatic increase.
The recent ceasefire in Idlib took the immediate pressure off Turkey, and the E.U. has said it will review the terms of the 2016 deal, signaling that they will capitulate on some of Ankara’s demands for more money and other forms of assistance. Erdogan is due to meet European leaders in Istanbul next week to continue the negotiations. But any number of world events could send more people on the difficult journey to Europe. “You have to go back to the drawing board and find something,” Pierini says, “because the issue is not going to go away.”