According to a BBC report, Turkish officials have claimed that a Syrian man was fatally wounded when Greek security forces opened fire as migrants approached the border on Wednesday. This follows reports of the death of a young boy two days earlier, when a boat carrying 47 migrants capsized off Lesbos. Thousands of people from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and other countries have attempted to cross the Turkey-Greece border, following an announcement on 27 February by the Turkish government that Turkey would no longer stop asylum seekers from reaching the European Union. In response, the Greek government has issued police, army, and special forces to reinforce its borders.
Greek government spokesperson Stelios Petsas denied the claim that a man was killed on Wednesday, accusing Turkey of “spreading fake news.” However, Human Rights Watch reports confirm that Greek forces appear to have used “excessive or disproportionate force” against the people who have attempted to cross into Greece. Earlier this week, the presidents of the EU Commission, the EU Council, and the European Parliament praised the efforts of the Greek border forces. Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch, has warned that praising the violent and dangerous actions of the Greek border guards was “irresponsible” and that by ignoring “abuses and violations of international law, they will invite more of the same.”
Turkey’s decision to open its borders with the EU comes after 33 Turkish soldiers were shot down by air strikes in the Idlib region of Syria last week, escalating Turkey’s role in the conflict and putting pressure on the EU to provide support to Turkish troops. Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office, criticized Turkey’s move, stating that refugees are once again being used by Turkey as “bargaining chips in a callous political game” to gain EU support. Indeed, refugees were effectively used as bargaining tool in the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement, which implemented a ‘one in, one out’ system where unsuccessful asylum seekers are returned to Turkey in exchange for EU funding.
With mounting pressure on Turkey to deal with the influx of asylum seekers, on top of the EU’s minimal involvement in the Syrian conflict, it is unsurprising that Turkey has attempted to provoke the EU by encouraging refugees to take the perilous journey to Greece. While this and Greece’s actions in recent days are undoubtedly deplorable, it is unfair to place sole responsibility for this international crisis on Greece and Turkey. It is up to the European Commission to support both nations with substantial funding and resources to cope with the number of people arriving at their borders.
The recent fatalities at Greece’s borders must indicate to the rest of Europe that it can no longer turn a blind eye to the plight of refugees fleeing war and persecution. As UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi cautions, “In the face of such suffering, humanitarian aid alone cannot be the answer.” In light of this, action must be taken not only to protect refugees, but also to address the cause of the mass displacement of people from Syria. International peacekeeping strategies must be implemented to counter the violence by Russian-backed Syrian forces against civilians. Meanwhile, Greece and the rest of the European community must refrain from perpetuating the narrative that refugees fleeing war are a security threat to justify the use of excessive force, and instead must approach the situation with rationality and compassion. Until attitudes change, the EU’s attempts to manage the crisis will continue to fail, denying thousands of men, women and children the safety and security that they desperately need.