The Turkish government has decided to close its rail and land border with Greece and Bulgaria amid fears over the coronavirus spread, AFP quoted Turkish media as saying.
“The land and rail border gates will be closed to exits and entries from 2100 GMT today (Wednesday)”, as ordered by a circular issued by the interior ministry, the private Dogan news agency reported.
Only a few weeks ago, Ankara opened its land borders with Greece, Europe’s external border, and sent thousands of refugees and migrants to Europe, invoking Russia’s attacks against the Turkish army in Syria.
It is difficult to imagine Turkey closing its border with Bulgaria for the long term, however, because most of the country’s EU-bound exports leave the European territory of Turkey via Bulgaria, further north.
The EU strongly rejected Turkey’s use of migratory pressure for political purposes and called on Ankara to remove migrants from the Greek-Turkish border as a prerequisite to start a dialogue to re-examine the current EU-Turkey statement on migration.
Turkey, with a population of 80 million, has so far reported one death from coronavirus and a total of 98 cases, raising concerns about the credibility of the figures.
Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca said on Tuesday (17 March) that an 89-year-old person had died after he was infected by someone who had contacts with China.
On the other side of the border, neighbouring Greece, which has a population of 11 million, has reported 387 coronavirus cases and 5 deaths. Bulgaria, with a population of 7 million, has 3 deaths and 94 cases.
The problem with Iran
Andreas Rompopoulos, a correspondent of Greek TV channel MEGA in Turkey, reported on 18 March that the situation in Turkey was unclear and problematic.
He said a big number of migrants in Turkey came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Senegal and had reached Turkey through Iran.
Rompopoulos, who spent 15 days during the crisis at the Greek-Turkish land border before the coronavirus outbreak, said many migrants confirmed to him that before they entered illegally Turkey, they had spent a couple of years in Iran.
The Greek journalist also emphasised that the Turkey-Iran border is still porous despite Ankara’s decision to shut it down.
Iran’s health ministry has so far confirmed a total of 17,361 cases of COVID-19, according to state TV, while 1,135 have died. Iran is considered a hotspot for the coronavirus outbreak and a source of concern for the World Health Organisation.
The problem for Turkey, according to Rompopoulos, is that the approximately 20,000 refugees and migrants currently returning from the Greek-Turkish border to the camps in Turkey will probably be mixed with the new ones coming from Iran and this could create serious problems.
He also said Athens should keep a close eye in the situation considering that it’s not unlikely that the same people will try to reach the Greek islands in a couple of months.
In an unexpected move on 27 February, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis decided to upgrade border controls to the “maximum deterrent” level to prevent migrants affected with coronavirus from entering EU territory.
“Migration is now taking on a new dimension, as flows to Greece include people from Iran – where we have had many cases of Coronavirus – and many passing through Afghanistan. Our islands, already burdened with public health issues, therefore need to be protected twice,” the conservative leader told a ministerial meeting.
[Edited by Georgi Gotev/Zoran Radosavljevic]