Over the past few days, Turkey has reportedly relaxed restrictions on the movement of migrants travelling through the country into the European Union via the Greek border, allowing the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers currently within the country to decamp.

Riot police have been deployed along the Greek land border, although many migrants have also reportedly travelled by sea to the Aegean Islands. Despite the countermeasures taken by the Greeks, President Erdogan said on Saturday that 18,000 migrants had already crossed into the EU.

What motivated Turkey to stop these migrants from travelling into the EU in the first place, and why has Turkey suddenly relaxed these border controls in the last few days?

2 Answers 2


It's probably part of the pressure/negotiation tactics of Ankara, as they have a long history of threatening Europe with this:

Turkish government representatives, and even President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself, have regularly threatened to withdraw from the deal and "open the gates" over the past several years. In fact, Erdogan began making such threats even before the deal was signed in March 2016.

When Turkey hosted the G20 summit in Antalya in November 2015, Erdogan hinted he would simply open his country's borders with the EU if Brussels didn't want to pay for Ankara's help. At issue was an extra €3 billion ($3.3 billion) payment, one he was ultimately given. It was at that point that EU diplomats began grumbling that the bloc had opened itself to blackmail. [...]

The Turkish government has long complained that the EU has not paid out the €6 billion sum in full, and that the EU is dragging its feet on the accession negotiations and other agreements. The European Commission has begged to differ, claiming the money has been paid out in full — albeit to refugee aid organizations and not directly to the Turkish state.

On the other hand, insofar it's less clear what motivated the most recent "surge". Ankara claims:

Turkey is "no longer able to hold refugees" following a Syrian attack that killed 33 troops in Idlib, Omer Celik, a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AKP party, said on Friday. [...]

"As a result of the attack, the (refugees) in Turkey are heading towards Europe, and those on Syrian territory are heading towards Turkey," Celik told CNN Türk shortly after midnight Friday morning.

"Our refugee policy is the same as before, but we are now in a situation where we can no longer hold them."

As you can see, Turkey blames it on the recent events in Idlib... YMMV how credible that is.

Actually, Erdogan has been more explicit a day later:

"What did we do yesterday? We opened the doors," Erdogan told the Turkish Parliament on Saturday, in his first comments since 33 Turkish troops were killed in northern Syria on Thursday.

"We will not close those doors ... Why? Because the European Union should keep its promises."

Perhaps proving Erdogan's point that he is in control of the events, the Turkish-Bulgarian border has been quiet, despite the flare-up on Greek-Turkish border. Bulgaria has been a strong advocate for Turkey's position in the EU and NATO in the past few years. Unlike Bulgaria, Greece has recently derailed a NATO statement in support of Turkey:

According to diplomatic sources quoted by Greek journal To Vima, a discussion in NATO at the level of permanent representatives held in Brussels last night did not reach a consensus to support NATO member Turkey following the attack in Idlib.

Athens asked to include a reference to respect for the EU-Turkey Statement on migration, an addition which the US, the UK, France and Germany strongly opposed.

Turkey has called for stronger NATO support, mainly at the intelligence level, and for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Idlib.

The situation on the Bulgarian border remains quiet, although migrants have the choice to cross over the land border into either Bulgaria or Greece. TV footage showed refugees saying that they had been told going to Bulgaria was “forbidden” and that they were told to go to Greece instead.

So it seems the refugee surge is not only a general pressure tactic against the EU, but also more specifically directed against specific EU (and NATO) members.

Update (March 2)

After Turkey opened its doors for migrants to leave its territory for Europe last week, “hundreds of thousands have crossed, soon we will it will reach millions,” Erdogan claimed in a televised speech, although reports from the Greek border suggest the numbers are currently far smaller.

“After we opened the doors, there were multiple calls saying ‘close the doors’,” he said.

“I told them ‘it’s done. It’s finished. The doors are now open. Now, you will have to take your share of the burden’.”

He also said, in justifying the move that

“The period of single-sided sacrifice has come to an end.”

I guess time will tell exactly what form that burden-sharing will take... For now, the rhetoric on both sides is surely going up:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel described Turkey's move as "unacceptable", while EU migration commissioner Margaritis Schinas said "no one can blackmail or intimidate the EU".

  • 19
    Yes, it's part of the pressure tactics. But not on European leaders. It's pressure on the European people to let them accept unpopular migration policies. European leaders could react in many ways: 1) Freezing the billions they regularly donate to Turkey. 2) Freezing new study/work visas for Turkish citizens. 3) Introducing travel restrictions and limiting the number of allowed flight sloths between European and Turkish airports. 4) A lot of other options ... But they'll do nothing of this, they'll simply sheepishly submit to the blackmail, because it suits their purpose.
    – FluidCode
    Commented Mar 1, 2020 at 14:23
  • 14
    Brexit (and the other tensions) in EU means that Erdogan has a weapon and he isn't hesitant against using it. How to tell him to forget it ? Easily, stop the funds to Turkey and use them in Europe to support the refugees. And no the refuges wont disappear as long as the situation in the ME and Afghanistan is as they is. Commented Mar 1, 2020 at 15:21
  • 2
    Legalized blackmail, that's what it is. International legalized blackmail to pressure other countries into doing what you want. Both EU and Turkey screwed the pooch here.
    – Mast
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 6:49
  • @StefanSkoglund "And no the refuges wont disappear as long as the situation in the ME and Afghanistan is as they is" They're here to take over and are going nowhere, war or peace, until we decide to kick them all back home. Of course, while our governments seeking to destroy our nations remain in power, that sadly won't happen...
    – Crazydre
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 21:46
  • @FluidCode Damn right. If "our" leaders cared about the people, they would shut the door for all new non-European immigration and send back the bulk of those who arrived since 2000.
    – Crazydre
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 21:51

8 years ago (in 2012) when this refugee crises started, the streets of cities in Turkey were full of Syrians. They were cutting your way asking for money, collecting food from trash. Today (in 2020) you can not see anybody in the streets. Somehow they were absorbed into the system. The official number is 4.7 million people. And Turkey is not a rich country. Today there is a fear of another 1 million immigrant wave. Probably we can share everything with these people once more. But why only us?

If every European country had taken in between 100K-200K Syrian immigrants, these people could have had a better life long time ago. Maybe some countries in the union did better than the others.

My understanding is most European countries prefer to say "We give you money and you keep these people away from us".

Today the official statement from Turkey is "those who want to leave may leave, those who want to stay may stay and still be protected". And some people want to leave because they want a different life. This was going to happen sooner or later anyway.

  • 17
    In what way does this answer the question? It seems more like a comment on the general situation, and not an answer to a concrete question.
    – vsz
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 6:02
  • 4
    I think what he's trying to say is "there are already too many Syrians in Turkey and we can't afford to take care of them all, that's why we're letting them through to the EU instead of keeping them all"
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 6:48
  • I don't have enough reputation to comment on the answer. I am trying to say that, "some" of these people were going to go somewhere else sooner or later. It was pending as an unresolved issue. And it happened to be triggered. This is the new "normal" a much as it is creates "irritation". Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 7:26

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