ANKARA – Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country's borders with Europe were open on Saturday, making good on a longstanding threat to let refugees into the continent as thousands of migrants gathered at the frontier with Greece.
Erdogan’s announcement that Turkey is allowing refugees and migrants to exit the country marked a dramatic departure from current policy and an apparent attempt to pressure Europe.
It came amid a military escalation in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province, where hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians are trapped between advancing Syrian government forces backed by Russia and rebel fighters supported by Turkey.
The mass displacement in Idlib has raised the possibility that Turkey might come under growing international pressure to open its now sealed border with Syria and offer refuge to masses of desperate Syrian civilians.
“We can’t handle a new wave of migration,” Erdogan said in a speech Saturday, in an apparent reference to the growing humanitarian crisis in Idlib. Nearly 950,000 displaced civilians have been pushed toward the Syrian-Turkish border amid cold winter weather.
Erdogan also said Turkey would not stand in the way of refugees and migrants who hope to head from his country to Europe.
“We will not close the gates to refugees,” Erdogan he said. “The European Union has to keep its promises. We are not obliged to look after and feed so many refugees. If you’re honest, if you’re sincere, then you need to share."
Under a 2016 deal, Turkey agreed to stem the tide of refugees to Europe in return for financial aid after more than a million people entered Europe in 2015. It has since protested that the EU has failed to honor the agreement. Erdogan has frequently threatened to “open the gates” and allow refugees and migrants to head to Europe unless more international support was provided.