Thousands of asylum seekers headed to the Turkish-Greek border last month following Turkey opening its land and sea borders with Europe have been evacuated over coronavirus precautions, Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, announced on Friday.
Soylu said during a televised interview with Turkish news channel NTV that they transferred 5,800 migrants to deportation centers in nine provinces.
“We conducted an operation last night [Thursday] to evacuate Edirne’s Pazarkule border area. We will host refugees in repatriation centers.
We had to do it, but no one should feel at ease, we will not be saying no to those who want to cross the border again after this pandemic risk is over,” Soylu said.
Thousands of migrants had been waiting for weeks at a border crossing with Greece in the hope of making their way into Europe.
This came after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said his country would no longer prevent refugees hoping to reach the continent, in a move to get support from the European Union for Ankara’s offensive in northeastern Syria and more support for the over 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Thirty-four Turkish soldiers were killed during an airstrike in Idlib on Feb. 28. The Syrian government and its ally Russia stormed the area in a bid to recapture the last armed rebel enclave.
“I will not return [from the Turkish-Greek border]. We came here to go to Europe. But there is no hope left for us, we are aware. Now they [Turkish authorities] say they let us go back to our cities. Initially, they deceived us and led us to come to the border, and now they are sending us back over coronavirus. We sold all of our belongings. Where should we go?”
Hiba, a migrant, spoke to Gazete Duvar at Pazarkule border
Having been pushing back and deporting migrants from its northeastern borders with the support of the military and the police, Greece welcomed the move of Ankara evacuating the area.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis praised the Greek authorities’ ability to “guard its land and sea borders” and said: “A chapter may potentially be closing, but this battle, have no doubt, continues.”
Greek authorities also shared a night-time video of a fire in a wooded area on Friday, which they said was Turkish authorities burning tents left behind by departing migrants, Kathimerini reported.
An unconfirmed video published by a Syrian refugee on social media claims Turkish soldiers set fire to tents by the Greek border.
An Iranian migrant told Sendika.org that the authorities did not give any explanation about the evacuation and raised his concern over possible deportation.
“Our belongings were left in Pazarkule. I do not know what they are going to do to us. I am afraid of being deported. I do not want to go back to Iran.”
We´ve just spoken to a man who´s amongst those who have been violently removed by #Turkish police from #Pazarkule last night.They are on busses to #Malatya for Quarantine. Next? They don´t know. Appa.many kids with them,they claim they were not given any food. #LeaveNoOneBehind https://t.co/xece8RJl2p
— Marion Sendker (@lamaridda) March 27, 2020
According to a news report by Nuray Pehlivan from the Gazete Duvar news portal, the Turkish security officers forced several migrants to leave the area.
No migrants evacuated from the border area were tested for coronavirus, according to the report. They were then taken to Esenler Bus Terminal in Istanbul.
A few NGOs supply food once a day for migrants waiting at the bus terminal and try to help those with no money buy tickets to take them back to the cities they previously resided in. The report also claims:
“Migrants arriving at nearby hospitals with symptoms of fever, diarrhea and vomiting are denied access due to their lack of identity cards.”
Ankara halted intercity trains late on Saturday, and citizens now have to apply to the Travel Permission Council, tied to the local governor’s office, to travel by bus.
Around 500 migrants living in an encampment near Pazarkule refused to leave the area but on Friday morning the Turkish security forces evacuated them, according to Pehlivan.
A migrant within the group who spoke to Pehlivan hours before the evacuation lamented that they couldn’t even find some bread to eat:
“Many people are living off a small cake and carton of juice each day. I queued in the early morning for food. It’s 9 pm now and I still have not taken some food for my children. The nearby hospitals did not accept us. Some officers charged us money for charging our phones.”
Many migrants said they sold their belongings to cross the border, thinking it was allowed to go to Europe after Ankara announced it opened its borders.
“We were tear-gassed every day by the Greek police. We can’t go back or move to somewhere else as the Greek police seized our money when we crossed the border—we left nothing behind. Neither Turkish soldiers nor Greek soldiers listen to our problems,” another migrant said.
Seyit (25), an Afghan refugee who left his country for Turkey three years ago, thinks there is no more chance for him to go to Europe, as the Evros border is closed.
“We suffered a lot during our journey,” he says and adds:
“An elder man collected 100 lira (13,87 Euro) from each of us saying that he was going to take us to the Pazarkule border, but he left us on a bridge. We crossed the river [Evros] and a man in Greece said he was going to bring us some bread. But he brought Greek police officers. They took us at night and left us in a forest.”
*Writing by Zubeyir Koculu, Editing by Lucy Walton