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Syria: a never-ending refugees’ crisis

Greek – Turkish border: the death of Europe

After the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2015 and the consequent refugees’ crisis it seems to be now at a standstill. The situation is not better than some years ago, when the European Union signed an agreement with Turkey in order to block the “invasion”. Actually, it is going towards the abyss. If Europe does not find a solution, humanitarian catastrophe appears inevitable. It seems to be in a Risk game, where some States try to enhance their sphere of influence in the Middle East. The problem is that every pawn they move, provokes waves of migrants which move from Syria (and not only) towards Europe, in order to find a safe place. This article firstly will provide a general background on what has happened from 2016 until now, the effect produced by the EU – Turkey agreement and an update of the situation in Greece right now. Secondly, the focus will be on what Europe has done during these years and which is the situation now and the Erdoğan’s strategies.

1. From 2016 to now

On 2016, in response to the refugees’ crisis that affected all Europe as aftermath of the long civil war in Syria, the European Union found a temporary solution with the Turkey of Erdoğan, signing an agreement. This agreement aimed to reduce the pressure on the Greek borders and to leave Europe some time to find a stable solution in order to manage all the waves of people, escaping from their country.

The situation in Greece was becoming unsustainable since 2015, when migrants arrived in Greece tried to cross all the Balkans and reach the Northern Europe. The tangible consequence has been the creation of the refugees’ camp of Idomeni: the camp was the largest in Greece, with more than 10,000 people gathering at the Macedonian border hoping to be allowed to continue on their journey (only few people per day could go ahead). There was no government assistance for services in the camp, and refugees were dependent on themselves, non-profit organizations, or UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Of course, lack of security and sanitary standards were and are the normality, with thousands of people waiting all day long in queue for a piece of bread and water. 

Not only Idomeni, but also Lesbos, Samos and Chios: the Greek islands of the Aegean Sea which receive thousands and thousands of refugees were and still are at the collapse. Lesbos maybe is the most emblematic situation. In this place, outside the “recognised” camp where NGOs operate, has been formed external camp, the so called “the jungle”. While in the former ones, UNHCR provides services, cots and tent, medical assistance, classes for the children and so on; in the jungle the human conditions are less than the minimum: there are no WC, running water, warm places. Here some volunteers try to help the population, but it is not enough. On the island of Lesbos, the camp should accept until three thousands of people: actually, there are something like twenty thousand. In addition, many clashes occurred between different communities and nationalities inside the agglomerates because of the food and supplies shortages.

With the unprecedented volumes of new arrivals, even the European countries were no longer able to meet the EU standards for receiving and processing applicants. As in all the European coastal countries also in Greece the situation became difficult: the question of who is responsible for those arriving – the several times mentioned principle of “State of arrival” – has reignited deep internal divisions between Member States, with the Hellenic government in difficulties in managing the huge number of applications, and ensuring decent standards of living to the applicants. 

For this reason and in prediction of an increasing number of entries, on 18th March 2016, the European Union concluded the agreement with the President Erdoğan in order to stop the migration flows, de facto by closing the borders. Upon payment by the EU, Turkey undertook to keep migrants within its borders, not letting them reach Greece (1). It foresees that: all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey, in full accordance with EU and international law and in respect of the principle of non-refoulement; migrants not applying for asylum or whose application was inadmissible will be returned to Turkey; for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU through official humanitarian channels; Turkey committed itself to take any necessary measures to prevent new sea or land routes for illegal migration. On the other side, the EU would initially allocate 3 billion euros, with another addition of the same amount. These money should be used by Turkey to protect refugees and to ensure to them the human conditions they need (2). The deal included the re-energising of Turkish’s EU accession talks and upgrading of the customs union between the two sides. 

Many critics arose from the civil society and NGOs about the fact to give money to Turkey, a place where the safety of the migrants is not guaranteed, and where the government is suspected to violate several human rights. Furthermore, it could create a big bubble that in case of explosion would compromise the entire equilibrium. The aim of this agreement was to concede time to Europe and to each Member State to better organise themselves to deal with the huge number of asylum requests. The problem seems that during this time, they did nothing to reach an internal agreement.

The EU, its Member States together with Turkey should try to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria. But at the moment the Syrian stability is unlikely to happen. The civil war sees the opposition of the militias and rebels against President Assad’s regime. The initial civil war breaks out to free the country from the dictatorship, but now has assumed the features of a real war where other powers have interests too. We are talking about the US, Russia and Turkey. In particular, Russia (with Iran) support the president Assad, while the US, the rebels and Turkey has other interests. Then there is the war against the Islamic state, or Isis, which is (almost) a completely separate conflict. The way the other countries interfere is, of course, through military supplies (3), weapons and so on.

Turkey has important interests for acting in Syria: with two operation in 2016 and 2018, the Turkish forces occupied almost all of the district of Afrin. Erdoğan’s goal is, in fact, to establish a buffer zone in Northern Syria which also extends beyond the Eastern banks of the Euphrates. This would allow Turkey to control the territories currently occupied by the coalition of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Popular Protection Units (YPG), the US-supported Kurdish militia (the latter considered a terrorist organization by Turkey). The Safe Zone is essential and a crucial point in Erdoğan’s strategy both to secure the southern border of Turkey, but also to transfer up to two of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently located in Turkish territory, thus alleviating the demographic, social and economic weight from Ankara’s shoulders (4). This policy continues to be criticized from the US, Russia and Iran, afraid of an enhancing Turkish influence. 


The refugee issue represents a huge burden in demographic and socio-economic terms, as well as a friction point with the EU: on several occasions Erdoğan complained with Brussels about the insufficiency of the 2016 migrant agreement, threatening – and as we know he did –  new waves of refugees to the occurrence of any resurgence of the Syrian conflict. He wants, in few words, that the EU will support the Turkish policy of creation of a buffer zone.

2. Who are the refugees?

At the moment there are almost 40 thousand people on the Greek islands, for a total capacity of 5/6 thousand reception places (5). But the land border presents yet another question: to understand how critical the situation is, we should also visualise that it is not only the EU – Turkey borders that are overstretched, but also the Syria – Turkey border, especially after the attacks on Idlib. Here hundreds of people at the moment are piled up, in the hope of being able to continue the journey. In Syria there is almost a million people who no longer have a roof over their heads, whose schools are bombed and where there are thousands of dead.

According to the UNHCR reports, complex and multiple armed conflicts in the Middle East resulted in an increased internal and external displacement.

But of which nationality are the refugees who move towards Europe? And how these flows changed during the years? According to the data available on the UNHCR website about the populations of concern (6), Syrians represent the majority of the refugees, followed by those from Iraq and Iran. During the years, numbers changed: the intense fighting in northern Syria, especially in Aleppo, resulted in new displacement of 400,000. At the end of 2016, there were nearly 4.9 million Syrian refugees and more than 245,000 Iraqi refugees in the Asian subregion. The last data of 2019 talk about 6.2 million Syrians remaining internally displaced (as of August 2019) and at least 5.6 million more registered as refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and North Africa (7). Between January 2016 and September 2019, is estimated that more than 209,000 Syrian refugees spontaneously returned in their country of origin from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. With the focus on the Turkish situation: from 2016 there were more than 2 million of Syrian refugees, with an increase of 1 million in just one year. These years are probably the most critical ones.

In Greece we also assisted from 2015 and 2016 to an increase (from around 9 thousands to 28 thousands) but as effect of the agreement the number became stable until 2018, when it sketched to 38 thousands and more (8). In 2019 close to 75,000 refugees and migrants arrived on Greek shores and were absorbed into the various reception facilities on the mainland and on the North East Aegean islands. That represents a 47% increase when compared to 2018.

At those, we should add people coming from Afghanistan (representing the second-largest refugee population in the world), from Iran and Iraq: there the struggle against the ISIS, the Taliban, or the aerial bombing, forces people to leave their home. As for the Syrian, also for these other nationalities we assisted to the same increase until the cited agreement. But not only Turkey and Greece, also the other EU member States had to receive people from those areas: as we know, Germany hosts a huge number of refugees. It is one of the countries, that more than the others, opened its border, above all to skilled refugees. Here the variations are visible between the 2015 and 2016: the number jumped up, doubling, and going up during the years (indeed in 2018 it hosts almost 600.000 Syrians).

About the last updates: in Turkey there are now 3.588.131 “people of concerns” – the country hosts the most refugees in the world – and there are almost a million refugees in Lebanon. The total of Syrian refugees is 5.563.951.(9) Of those only a small part is located in the camp – close to the 8% –  while the remaining part has been included in the social fabric, among the urban and rural population, scattered across the country, mostly in urban centres, living side-by-side with the locals. Istanbul is the Turkish province with the largest number of refugees. These people need houses, jobs, initial amount of money, initial assistance, education and language support, services for disadvantaged groups such as unaccompanied children, elders, school-aged children, victims of violence, and the disabled or chronically ill. In part these services are provided by the municipalities (severely underfunded and understaffed) and in part by UNHCR. It is mostly this the problem for the Erdoğan’s government: the increasing pressure on the local population (with consequent tensions) and on the economic balance of the country (10). 

                                     (displacement of Syrians in different countries)

On the other side, also the UNHCR has denounced the lack of funds to be used in order to assist migrants in the refugees’ camps: humanitarian aid has fallen, only 9% of the total budget is spent on humanitarian assistance in Syria, while the population of this country represents the biggest part of the people of concerns. The contributions of the rich countries decreased, not only in terms of money, but also in availability to accept within their borders people in difficult situation. Indeed, from the international community represented by the so-called “safe countries”, UNHCR has received availability for 55,000 people, compared to the million most vulnerable refugees (coming from all around the world).

Almost half of these migrants are women and there is a considerable part of children. Education of children is one of the major items on the integration agenda. In 2017 there were more than 967,000 school-aged Syrian children in Turkey, of whom 50.8 % are receiving education. They are the most important victims of this war in Syria: the most vulnerable, who live in difficult environments, under constant bombing and air raids, that are losing their childhood in the journey from Syria to Europe. For young children this emotional stress can affect their future and their way of perceiving the life. The report done in the field of ECEC – Early Childhood Education and Care (11) – shows that trauma experiences now can have critical physical and mental effects on the development of who will be the men of tomorrow (12). We are losing a generation. Through the ECEC action, the EU tries to reduce the future gaps between refugees’ children and children of native-born parents, with important projects.

3. What is happening right now

Moria is the name of the hotspot for identifying migrants in the heart of the Greek island of Lesbos and is increasingly similar to a slum. It is the symbol of European policies in the immigration field and its metamorphosis represents all phases of the attitude of Europeans towards refugees during last years. In 2015 it was a makeshift camp and became the most emblematic image of the new rules for identification of asylum seekers, imposed on Greece and Italy by the EU: the “hotspot approach”. The new rules required that all asylum seekers with no regular documents are locked up in an administrative detention regime. Even the children underwent the same treatment, to be identified and have access to asylum procedures.

Today, Moria is the largest refugee camp in Europe, with its barracks, the improvised shops along the internal streets, the tents built on the terraces, between the olive trees and the heaps of garbage. Electricity is distributed through makeshift connections, the toilets are insufficient, the water is not drinkable, and the services are in fact provided by the dozens of NGOs, local and foreign government officials working inside and outside the camp. There are present almost 7,000 children. The jungle does not stop its enhancing.

(photo: la Repubblica)

Meanwhile, the new Greek conservative government (lead by Kyriakos Mitsotakis – Nea Dimokratia) has shut down all transfers to the mainland and has approved a new asylum law in force since January 2020. 

To this incredible situation we should add the Coronavirus pandemic problem. Indeed, the first case of coronavirus has been confirmed in the camp. MSF (Médecins sans frontières) shows lot of concerns about the health safety in these places because it would be impossible to contain an epidemic in this kind of settlements; the contagion could cause a catastrophe since it is not possible to respect the distance between people and soap and running water are missing. (13)(14) MSF continues to ask to the Greek government and EU Member States to act as soon as possible and transfer most asylum seekers to appropriate accommodation before it is too late. The fear of coronavirus in the largest refugee camp in Europe, has obliged Athens to introduce further limits and from 1st March suspending the right to asylum in the country, to respond to the threat of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of open the borders. While on the other side the UNHCR is asking for more transfers (around 20.000) from the island to the mainland.

In Syria meanwhile, the crisis is not losing its cruelty and harshness. A conflict is taking place in the province of Idlib between Ankara and Damascus. From there, last stronghold of the rebels, 900 thousand people fled. The growing tensions were triggered by a bombing of the Syrian army, last February 3 in which six Turkish soldiers died (15). Ankara has responded bombing Syrian army units in order to take the control of two important communication arteries highways, which connect the cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia (the hypothetic border of the buffer zone around Idlib). Syrian army, assisted by the Russian air force, are advancing in the Idlib region, partially or totally controlled by rebel forces since 2012. This area has been characterized in the last eight years by a strong internal fragmentation, with the presence of multiple rebel militias. The attacks in Idlib has provoked waves of refugees, forcing 300,000 Syrians to flee North, pushing to enter in Turkey and in Greece, and is causing thousands of civilian casualties. Hospitals and schools are destroyed. If Assad’s forces continue their advance northward, this situation could further worsen as approximately 3 million Syrians live in this region. (16) In Idlib as many as seven children have died from freezing temperatures and horrific living conditions in camps: two sisters died when their tent burned down because their heater was unsafe. Others died because of the harsh temperatures. Since 1st December 2019, as many as 450,000 children have been forced to flee their homes in Idlib, due to a brutal escalation in in the ongoing conflict – Save the children reported (17).


3.1 Has the European Union failed?

What has Europe done during these years meanwhile the agreement with Turkey was in force? The European Union feels, especially in the field of migration, the deep disagreement between the Member States. The solution found together with Erdoğan was meant to be a temporary tool, in order to stop the incessant flow of people and take time to organize and allocate people in Europe (the vast majority of refugees moved towards Germany and North). 

The main critic about how the European Union has managed the crisis, is that it has done very little or nothing in order to find a solution that will be definitive and not only temporary. Still remains, without any changes, the Dublin system (with all its critical aspects), the redistribution based on voluntary membership – due to the Eastern countries opposition. Pay someone who will keep migrants within its borders, according to some NGOs, is absurd and not a solution, since that the Syrian war seems far to be finished.

In 2019, the number stood at 123,663, including arrivals to Italy, Cyprus and Malta, as well as Greece and Spain. The European Commission said last year the number of irregular arrivals of refugees by the Greek route had reduced by 97 percent since the implementation of the 2016 deal. 

Ankara accuses Brussels of not holding up its promises. It was for this reason Turkey would no more block the persons at the borders, opening the frontiers with Greece. The violence escalation in the Syrian region of Idlib in February and the humanitarian consequences have been the main topic of discussion between the Turkish authorities and the High Representative for the Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell. The Turkish president was afraid of the risk of a fresh influx of hundreds of thousands of people from the war-torn country through its southern frontier. Borrell declared that the Turkish intention to create a no-fly zone could be a useful hypothesis.

Many times, the Central-Asia partner warned the EU, as Hami Aksoy (Turkish foreign ministry spokesman) told to Al Jazeera « We have been calling for a more equitable burden and responsibility-sharing for a long time« ; « All our efforts contributed significantly to the security of Europe. However, our calls were ignored by the EU and member states. » (18) According to Ankara, the EU has not held its side of the agreement over these issues, even though it has fully complied itself: again he said that, of the first three billion euro, a total of 2.47 billion euros had been released (the main part used by organisations tasked with implementing the projects). He continues that the EU has been slow in releasing the second part of the aid, noting that only 754 million euros have been released and 77.4 million euros used so far (19). 

In a declaration, Ankara’s government affirmed that more than 130,000 refugees had left Turkey for Greece as effect of the opening borders. On the other side, Greek authorities argue that 139 people who entered Greece without documents have been arrested and others were stopped. But that the numbers cited by Turkish authorities are entirely false and misleading: it is a fight about the numbers, everything can be propaganda used to influence the public opinion and the countries.

The Presidents of the three main European institutions – Charles Michel (European Council), Ursula Von der Leyen (European Commission) and David Sassoli (European Parliament) – visited the border with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on 3rd March. This visit occurred right after the publication of videos showing the Greek police trying to block migrants, using violence, in particular, they beat refugees to dissuade them from continuing the journey. Police were equipped with barbed wire, batons, tear gas and weapons to fire warning shots. These images were spread out all around the world, demonstrating that the EU has failed in its strategy and has accepted that a Member State will use the violence against refugees, which are protected by international law. 

By not condemning Greece, the three leaders of the EU have shown their support to the Hellenic policy of refoulement. They did not propose any actions that could help solve this issue, or at least contain the phenomena in concrete terms. In that occasion, they announced more economic aids, but a redistribution of the asylum seekers is unlikely to happen. The only sense of unity emerges against the Erdoğan unscrupulousness, accused to use migrants as a bomb, to threaten the counterpart. The presidents did not comment the Mitsotakis’s choice to stop the asylum application, choice strongly condemn, instead, by the High Commissioner for Refugees and by Amnesty International. Following the Greek example, also other countries of the Balkans, such as North Macedonia and Bulgaria are closing their door, while Hungary has, long time ago, decided to suspend indefinitely the access to the asylum applicants. In the meantime, the Greek government had obtained the rapid displacement of Frontex forces.

Only Sassoli spoke of the need to implement a « European refugee redistribution mechanism« . For the moment, Syrians remain there, with no way out, neither for them, nor for Greece. He also cited the art. 78 TFEU which could ask Member State to accept unaccompanied minors in a mandatory way, in addition to giving funds, tools, boats to Greece. But this heartfelt appeal does not seem to have been accepted by the States, also because it would take time and this one is scarce. Every day that passes the situation in Syria, and therefore also in Turkey and Greece, becomes more and more critical (20). Von der Leyen, on the other side, thanked Greece « for being our European protection« . Some MEPs write a letter to her asking for « urgently action to create a humanitarian corridor for relocate the 500 minors massed in precarious conditions in the island’s refugee camps of Samos« . (21)


Even the FRA (EU Agency for Fundamental Rights) urges Member States to agree on a common point to avoid lack of clarity and delays in the relocation process of unaccompanied children. In their report, they suggested a series of steps and criteria that should be followed by the Commission when the topic concerns the children, their best interests, their reconciliation with the family and so on (22).

Exactly one week from the open border announcement, Erdoğan ordered his coastguard to block the migrants’ boats to cross the Aegean to Greece, closing again the doors. Masked as usual as a humanitarian initiative – « to avoid human tragedies » he explained – the action could actually be just a sign of willingness to dialogue sent by Erdoğan to the EU. The latter made it clear – despite some existing divisions among the States – that was ready to give in to his requests. At least the economic ones (23). On 9th March, Erdoğan was in Brussels. On the table, the exchange of mutual accusations made regarding the non-compliance by both parties with the terms of the agreement and the real possibility to continue it. At this point, it appears very difficult that the EU will back out from the agreement and explicitly mess with Turkey. Probably, the Union will opt for a renewal of it, with the approval of a new financial aid package (24). Few the options available, as a serious and concrete diplomatic intervention to solve the Syrian crisis in Idlib; or a real relocation of asylum seekers and their division by quota between the Member States – and the latter appears even more impossible.

An understanding of a European common responsibility towards other human beings in distress and a shared burden among EU Member States are essential to find a real and concrete help. The game that countries are playing in Syria has real effects on these people, whose only fault is to live in a place which is object of collision and where different forces try to gain the power. They are human beings, not only numbers. Until EU members will not really understand this, a common sense of responsibility would not exist, with the consequence to kill the so famous – but inexistent – European solidarity

Alessandra Generale

1 Here the statement after the signature of the Agreement 

2 All those who arrived in Lesbos starting March 20th, 2016 had to be locked up in the hotspot, waiting to establish if they should be sent back to Turkey. The country is considered a safe third country, although in fact Ankara does not recognize the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention for most nationalities and does not guarantee protection to refugees. In four years, according to the agreement, around two thousand people have been sent back to Turkey from Greece.



5 For example, on the Samos island, build for 650 people camp is overcrowded, as some 4000 migrants are stuck

6 People of concern: refugees and persons in refugee-like situations, returnees, stateless people, the internally displaced and asylum-seekers

7 Official report by UNHCR 

8 On UNHCR website, at the following link, it is possible consult the migrant flow per years, country of origin and country of arrival/asylum application 

9 Official data and graphics are available here  (21/03/2020) the situation is quite stable compared to 2018 when there was a displacement of refugees which involved 6 million of people


11 The European Commission is committed in different policy fields, one of this concerns the early childhood education, which refers to any arrangement of the EU that provides education and care in order to ensure high quality level to the children across the EU


13 “La paura del coronavirus nel campo profughi più grande d’Europa” – Annalisa Camilli – Internazionale


15 For more information 




19 ibidem

20 ibidem


22 The text is available at the following link 

23 While the Eastern countries and Germany would be inclined to pay, greater resistance would come from France and Greece. 

24 Moreover, according to some rumours, Brussels would be willing to put on the plate 500 million, but they will be probably still far from the Turkish request.

Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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