Analysis. This is not the first time that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used refugees as a bargaining chip against Europe. This time he’s upset about the word ‘invasion.’ Brussels decides this week how to respond.

It’s not Turkey’s invasion of Syria that worries Europe

The tanks rolling out against the Kurds are now accompanied by outright threats against the European Union. We’d better not describe what Turkey is doing in northern Syria as an “invasion,” because Recep Tayyip Erdogan is ready to open the floodgates for migrants and mount an “invasion” of Europe all by himself with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. 

“I repeat: If you try to describe our operation as an invasion, we will do what’s easy for us: we will open the doors and send 3.6 million refugees to you,” the Turkish president warned in a speech at a meeting of his party’s supporters in Ankara.

At the European Council on Oct. 17 and 18, the heads of state and government of the EU28 will decide what action to take towards Ankara. For now, however, Brussels has only produced a timid statement calling on Turkey to cease its military operations. These operations have already caused the flight of at least 100,000 people from their homes already.

This is not the first time Erdogan has used migrants as an instrument to exert pressure, although so far he doesn’t seem to have gotten much from it. The last time was on Oct. 1, in the run-up to the current “Operation Peace Spring,” when he warned the EU against interfering with his plan to deport two million Syrians to a “safe zone” in northern Syria, threatening that any opposition would bring the end of the pact signed in March 2016 with which Ankara pledged to stop migrant departures to Greece. He made the threat in July as well (while trying to pressure Brussels to keep its promise to liberalize EU visas for Turkish citizens), and on at least two or three occasions over the last three years. On each occasion, Erdogan waved the specter of a new wave of immigration before the frightened European states—a wave that would be just as big, if not bigger, than in 2015.

Nevertheless, Turkey still has to be given credit for being the country which hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, numbering 3.6 million, although about a tenth of them are living in difficult conditions in camps that are often overcrowded. According to data released by UNICEF in March, 645,000 young refugees attended school, but the organization also denounced a school dropout rate of 40%, with about 400,000 children and teenagers who are not able to get an education because they have to work, but also because they can’t afford to buy school books or are forced to marry young.

Of course, everything comes at a price, and Europe has happily paid it just to stop the boats from coming: €6 billion according to the 2016 agreement, €5.6 billion of which has already been paid (the last tranche of €1.41 billion got the green light from the European Commission on July 19). And, if the diplomatic crisis works out their way, Ankara wants another €1 billion to continue stopping the refugees in 2020.

Eight years after the beginning of the war, many Syrians have no more hopes, or intentions, of returning to their country. And they’re not waiting for Erdogan to open the mythical floodgates, but are trying on their own, in every way they can, to reach Europe in the hope of being able to build a future. From January to September, 315,000 people have been apprehended in Turkey while attempting to cross the border to the EU, 47,000 more than in 2018. Of those, 27,000 were stopped just in the month of May. 

These numbers are causing fear in Greece, the first country they would pass through and which would have to welcome them, already in crisis because of the overcrowding of the Aegean islands, even though they intend to go further, all the way across Europe. However, this also shows that what some people see as threats might mean hope for many others.

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