Turkey has pressed European leaders to make fresh cash pledges to prevent tens of thousands of refugees from leaving the country and trying to reach Europe amid a Russian-Syrian offensive in north-west Syria.
After intense bombardment in Idlib province last month, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, encouraged thousands of refugees in the country to move on towards the Greek islands and the Baltics, in a repeat of the surge to Europe in 2015.
That push ended when the EU gave Turkey €6bn to house the refugees in Turkey. Nearly €4.7bn has been contractually awarded, but only about €3.2bn paid out.
In a phone call on Tuesday between the French president, Emmanuel Macron, the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Erdoğan, the leaders discussed the possibility of a new refugee deal, ways to combat the continued Russian threat in Idlib, and the fear that coronavirus could sweep through the refugee camps bordering Syria in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
The four leaders had originally planned to meet in person in Istanbul but because of the coronavirus outbreak settled for a 75-minute video call.
Erdoğan has been accused of blackmail by some Europeans for bussing refugees towards the EU’s borders. TV footage showed Greek security guards using water cannons and teargas against migrants who tried to force their way across the border.
Greece, supported by the EU, has suspended asylum applications for a month.
Johnson’s presence on the call marks a British reinsertion into the Syria crisis, after the UK was excluded from previous talks between Germany, France and Turkey.
During an emergency stopover in Ankara last month, Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, made no criticism of Turkey’s decision to encourage tens of thousands of refugees to head to Europe.
In the House of Commons on Tuesday, Raab insisted “we must hold the Syrian regime and the Russian government to account for the brutality of the fighting, which is causing the refugee flows”.
Turkey has argued that a joint Russian-Syrian military offensive forcing tens of thousands of refugees towards the country simply made it impossible for it to hold back the 3.7 million refugees, but Ankara has been accused of using the refugees as a lever to extract more money from Europe.
Erdoğan first met the EU on 9 March 9 discuss his demands for extra cash in Brussels but no settlement was reached.
The advocates of the 2016 EU scheme say there is no alternative but to prepare a second €6bn scheme, and start to take some of the refugees off Greek islands and on to the mainland prior to their dispersal in Europe.
The EU has also offered cash lump sums to the refugees to leave the Greek camps and return to Turkey. Roughly 13,000 refugees, according to the UN, are stuck on the border with Greece and Bulgaria in Turkey’s Edirne province.
Erdoğan has largely been left humiliated by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who has refused to make concessions in his drive to push Syrian opposition forces out of Idlib province.
On 5 March, Erdoğan flew to Moscow to try to secure concessions, but he left only with a limited ceasefire.
The talks came as Greece came under further pressure to decongest vastly overcrowded migrant camps seen as especially high-risk environments for coronavirus.
The Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović, called on Athens’ centre-right government to take action after the death of a six-year-old girl in Moria, the holding centre on Lesbos.
The child, among 22,000 people in the facility, is believed to have died in a blaze sparked by a faulty cooking stove.
“Greek authorities must act now to prevent other tragedies and plan swift decongestion of the islands,” Mijatović tweeted on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said migrants who breached the Greek border had been “detained, assaulted, sexually assaulted, robbed and stripped” by security forces and unidentified armed men.
“The European Union is hiding behind a shield of Greek security-force abuse instead of helping Greece protect asylum seekers and relocate them safely throughout the EU,” said Nadia Hardman, its refugee rights researcher.