Wed 03 Jun 2020

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“Coronavirus” and Greek border guards end issue of asylum seekers stuck at Turkey-Greece border 

Families return from the Greek-Turkish border to Istanbul’s main bus terminal(Ghassan Yassin's Facebook page)

Families return from the Greek-Turkish border to Istanbul’s main bus terminal(Ghassan Yassin's Facebook page)

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At the closed gates of Europe, asylum seekers have stood for a month, finding themselves in limbo on the Turkish-Greek borders; they cannot get into the European Union or turn back to Turkey. They set up their makeshift tents, hoping to make their ways to Europe soon, but the novel coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, conspired with the Greek border guards and took control of the Turkish decisions, which were driving them to the West, Europe. 

As a precaution amid the coronavirus pandemic, Turkey’s Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced on 27 March of this year that the Turkish authorities evacuated 5,800 asylum seekers who have been since the start of this March at the Pazarkule border crossing between Turkey and Greece.

Soylu stated that “when this epidemic is over, we will not prevent whoever wants to leave,” stressing that this step came as a “humanitarian precautionary measure.”

However, many asylum seekers—who went to the border hoping to cross into Europe through Greece after Turkey decided to open its borders for them— began to return to the Turkish states in conjunction with Turkey’s announcement of the first infection with the “emerging coronavirus,” on 11 March.

Asylum seekers turning back to Turkey for fear of the COVID-19

The 20-year-old Anas al-Ahmad is a young man who left his families and went to the Turkish-Greek border, allowing his imagination to take a flight to Europe. However, al-Ahmad returned to the Turkish state of Kayseri, his “illegal” place of residence; al-Ahmad lives illegally in Turkey because he does not have the temporary protection identification document (kimlik) granted by the Turkish government to Syrian refugees in Turkey after he spent 15 days at the border in “deteriorating” unhealthy living conditions.

Al-Ahmad feared that he might be exposed to the risk of transmission of any infectious diseases, including coronavirus, after its spread. Therefore, he decided to return to Turkey as “health surveillance,” and doctors were not there for asylum seekers, and the Greek border guards were cruel; they were systematically firing the asylum seekers with tear gas and live and rubber bullets.

Waiting at Istanbul’s main bus terminal (Coach station)

Numerous individuals and families returned to Turkey, not out of fear of the coronavirus, but because they were experiencing a lack of hope of crossing into Europe, fatigue, hunger, long waits, severe living conditions, and poor services.

Enab Baladi monitored the arrival of four families (three Syrians and one Afghan) and several other young men to the main bus terminal in Istanbul. They were getting ready to go back to the states from which they left after they sold their home furniture and headed to Edirne.

Television producer and social activist Shadi Turk explained to Enab Baladi, the situation of these families for he works to provide them with their essential needs such as bus tickets, meals, and homes to return to.

Turk pointed out that the Turkish authorities have imposed a lockdown on refugee camps across the country. Thus, refugees can no longer enter or leave, describing those who returned voluntarily before this procedure as “lucky.”

Turk’s individual charitable initiative is to collect money from several well-off people and then fınd houses for renting them for those families, who left everything behind to go to Europe through the Turkish Greek border and then wanted to go back to Turkey after the coronavirus spread worldwide. With the money Turk collects, Turk pays the rents of these houses after furnishing them. Turk highlighted that “all what these families ask for is low-rent housing to settle in, regardless of their locations.”

Turk took advantage of his long residence in Turkey, and of his vast connections and communications with many relief associations and agencies responsible for providing these families with meals.

Turkey’s preventive measures

Turk told Enab Baladi that two days ago that the Turkish authorities sent 15 buses to the place where asylum seekers gathered at the border to transfer them to camps in the southern states of the country, in order to quarantine them for fear of possible infection with the coronavirus.

Edirne Provincial Health Director Prof. Dr. Ali Cengiz Kalkan announced in statements reported in the Turkish Doğan news agency (DHA) that the health directorate is cleaning and disinfecting against the coronavirus all the areas and squares that asylum seekers are waiting in regularly as well as using a thermal camera to screen asylum seekers’ elevated temperature “day and night.”

Asylum seekers at the border, just like any group of refugees or displaced people, are likely to get infected with the “high-risk” pandemics, due to the lack of a healthy environment that helps to prevent and control infection, the medical epidemiologist Yasser Hassan, told Enab Baladi.

Amid Turkish pressure and Greek pushback of migrants… a month of harassment

The Turkish border guards allowed the media outlets and journalists to cover the asylum seekers’ condition during their stay at the Greek border for a month. Only after nearly five days of the foreign media outlets’ arrival, they were “strictly forbidden” to enter the Turkish side of the border with Greece, Abdullah Meshaal, an asylum seeker at the Turkish-Greek border, said to Enab Baladi.

Meshaal added that the Turkish authorities reduced the amount of food and assistance provided to refugees, “in an attempt to pressurize and stifle them to leave the place and return.”

The Turkish authorities controlled the asylum seekers’ entry and exit from the region, as the security forces responsible for them gave each asylum seeker the right to enter and exit the camp— a place where asylum seekers gathered— once through fingerprint biometric attendance system.

The Turkish security forces provided ropes to the asylum seekers to help them cross the fence borderline. They also incited them to pass to the Greek side, as some “forced” many asylum seekers to ride inflatable boats to cross the river between Turkey and Greece, according to Abdullah.

Thousands of asylum seekers had to face the “violence” of the Greek security forces, which prevented their attempts to cross into Greece by closing the crossing gate and targeted their gathering from the first moment of their arrival at the point between the Turkish and Greek crossings by various means.

The Greek security forces intervened with tear gas, smoke bombs, and sound bombs, trying to repel the crowd of asylum seekers. They also used the turbines by placing them on military vehicles to diminish the effectiveness of the gas and disperse it towards the direction of the asylum seekers’ existence after the wind direction changed to the Greek side.

The Greek security forces fired plastic bullets and live ammunition on asylum seekers, killing three asylum seekers of  Syrian, Moroccan, and Pakistani nationalities, according to the statement of the Edirne Provincial Health Director, Cengiz Kalkan.

According to a statement released by the Turkish state of Edirne, the Greek government placed 5-foot (1.5-meters)concrete blocks at the entrance of its Kastanies border crossing, to thwart the attempts of the asylum seekers to enter Greece, who numbered 147,132 before the Turkish authorities started to send them back to the Turkish states, ending a month of suffering.

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