Fact check: Is this a refugee crisis?

A refugee stands at the Turkish-Greek border as they try to enter Europe, in Edirne, Turkey, 2 March 2020. [Erdem Sahin/EPA/EFE]

For many, the dramatic events at the Greek-Turkish border resemble the 2015 refugee crisis, when more than a million refugees, mostly from Syria, crossed into Europe across the Mediterranean or overland. But is this really so? EURACTIV takes a closer look.

Where do the migrants come from? On Tuesday (3 March), Russia rejected statements by Turkey and Western countries about refugee flows and a humanitarian crisis in Syria’s Idlib region, describing the information as groundless.

Russia, the powerful ally of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, is well informed about the situation in and around Idlib. According to Moscow, almost 200,000 refugees are currently near the Syrian-Turkish border because of the fighting in Idlib, but it said no more than 35,000 people have crossed the border from conflict zones in Syria into Turkey so far in 2020.

What looks certain is that the vast majority of the refugees arriving at the Turkish border with Greece do not originate from Idlib. There are reports that most of them have been moved by buses free of charge to the border area.

It is also important to notice that most migrants apparently follow instructions from the Turkish authorities to go to the Greek border and avoid the nearby Bulgarian border.

The Commission avoided answering a journalistic question on Tuesday if bringing migrants by bus to the border was a refugee crisis or a hybrid attack, a new kind of warfare. Migrants were told the border was open but they soon found out it wasn’t.

Apparently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is having a hard time after his army in Syria lost 33 soldiers, and is trying to divert the attention of his domestic audience.

This could be the explanation for the major exaggerations noticed in Turkish public statements.

The Turkish interior ministry said on Monday that 117,677 refugees have crossed into Greece. But this number is much higher than the total number of migrants gathered in the border areas, estimated at some 20,000. Such exaggerations could only work for the AKP supporters at home, but not for Turkey’s international partners.

Moreover, the Greek authorities, who have done their utmost to prevent allow illegal crossings (also invoking the coronavirus as an excuse for the pushbacks), said on Monday that less than 200 migrants have managed to cross the border and that all of them have already been sentenced by Greece to four years of jail for illegal crossing.

Tellingly, the pressure on the Greek border has dropped significantly on Tuesday and may drop further. Migrants exchange information and the failure of the first groups to cross into European territory may discourage others from trying.

All this seems to indicate that the Turkish authorities are either not succeeding in triggering a migration wave similar to that of 2015, or that their real objective is different – to create tension with the aim of achieving internal and external goals. Our educated guess is that they didn’t succeed in either. But the story isn’t over.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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