Despite a 2016 agreement with the EU to stop refugee flows out of Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that 18,000 refugees stood ready along Turkish borders with Europe to pour into the continent.
In his first public comments since Thursday's deaths of 33 Turkish troops in Idlib, likely by a Russian airstrike (though Ankara has preferred to blame Syrian forces), Erdogan said this number will likely climb to as many as 30,000 on Saturday.
"We are not in a situation to handle a new wave of refugees" from Syria, he said, after previously threatening repeatedly to "open the gates" on the over 3 million Syrian refugees Turkey is hosting.
It looks like he's now making good on this threat, though questions remain over if this is truly the beginning of a 2015 level flood, or a foretaste of what could come:
“We will not close these doors in the coming period and this will continue. Why? The European Union needs to keep its promises. We don’t have to take care of this many refugees, to feed them,” Erdogan said.
He also reiterated and underscored that some 1.5 million refugees were ready to exit war-torn Idlib amid the Syrian-Russian offensive intensifying in the south of the province. Turkey is now in an open war situation with the Syrian Army, claiming to have killed scores of Syrian national troops and paramilitary forces over the last days.
Turkish officials initially announced after Thursday's attack devastated Turkish troops that they would unseal the Turkish-Idlib border for up to 72 hours, allowing refugees transit through Turkish territory and into Europe.
They also had announced that police, coast guard and border security personnel had been ordered to "stand down" starting overnight on Thursday.
Buses were even seen staged in Istanbul to facilitate this. Evidence emerged throughout Friday that Turkish authorities were indeed actively pushing groups of refugees toward Greece, while Greece announced emergency security measures and a military response to block illegal entry, also sealing its main land cross with Turkey at Kastanies to all inbound.
Another video shows refugees bussed from Istanbul to the border area with Greece.— Jenan Moussa (@jenanmoussa) February 28, 2020
An eyewitness told me he saw 9 buses leaving.
At one point, it got super crowded and men quarrelled to get a place on the bus. @akhbar pic.twitter.com/r25IaShyiG
This has, not for the first time in recent years, left hundreds reportedly stranded at the border crossing between the Turkish and Greek sides, neither side allowing entry.
Refugees have reached the Turkish Greek border close to #Edirne & now they are stuck there.— Jenan Moussa (@jenanmoussa) February 28, 2020
They cant go back to Turkey becaue Turkish soldiers are not allowing them.
And they cant move forward because Greece isnt allowing them.
Video via @salam_aldeen1. pic.twitter.com/vbUxRLiMUp
The Turkish side is said to be actively pushing refugees and migrants into the 'no man's land' border crossing area in order to provoke a crisis for the cameras, in a message to the EU, NATO and Washington.
#Evros now : more than 3.000 migrants and refugees hoping to break through Greek block at Kastanies crossing: for those of us who lived it, the nightmare of #Idomeni has revived. Is it too much to ask from @EU_Commission and @Frontex to give Greece a helping hand ? pic.twitter.com/rrb3iGGnZ3— Giorgos Christides (@g_christides) February 29, 2020
Despite Erdogan touting in his speech that 18,000 to up to 30,000 are now en route toward the EU, Greek government officials have confirmed no where near that amount, but is witnessing an initial wave of thousands attempting to enter.
According to Greek daily Ekathimerini:
In Athens, government spokesman Stelios Petsas said that more than 4,000 migrants have been prevented from crossing into Greece from Turkey and there have been 66 arrests.
"Greece was the target of an organized. mass, illegal attempt to violate its borders and has withstood it," Petsas told reprters Saturday after an emergency meeting of ministers at the Prime Minister's office.
Ekathimerini newspaper also reported that military commandos and significantly beefed up land and sea patrols had been authorized by Athens.
Refugees rush to buses in Istanbul headed for Greece as Turkey opens borders pic.twitter.com/uwbrCRrodg— TRT World (@trtworld) February 28, 2020
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis vowed that "no illegal entries into Greece will be tolerated" - noting greatly tightened security along the EU's external borders.
Meanwhile, NATO and the EU have called on Erdogan to honor Turkish commitments to halt flows of refugees into Europe, obviously to no avail.