Few seas have seen as much drama as the Aegean.
Start with Greek myth. Three millennia ago, Paris sailed home to Troy across the Aegean after taking Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships into these waters, starting the Trojan War. Odysseus faced a decade of peril in the Aegean – cannibals and witch goddesses, lotus-eaters, cyclops and irrepressible winds – before making his way home.
Since the mid-19th century, Turkey and Greece have engaged in multiple wars and border disputes, alongside endless debate, over the islands and waters sandwiched by the Dardanelles in the north and Crete to the south. A century ago, hundreds of thousands of people crossed these waters, headed in opposite directions, as part of a massive population exchange between the two neighbours and rivals.
From mid-2015 to mid-2016 as many as a million migrants, mostly Syrians, crowded onto inflatable dinghies to reach Greece, sending shockwaves across the continent and reshaping European politics. A refugee agreement between Turkey and the EU slowed that wave to a trickle, yet today the Aegean is witnessing something unprecedented, as thousands of asylum-seekers are forced to cross again and again, fighting a Sisyphean battle to reach the sanctuary of Europe.
In recent months, a growing number of migrants who have reached Greece’s Aegean islands have found themselves, hours later, adrift in Turkish waters, as detailed by several news outlets. A group of Afghan refugees told The New York Times they were resting in a forest on Lesbos when Greek police officers detained them and took their documents, money and phones before putting them in rudderless rafts the Greek Coast Guard towed out to sea.
One Yemeni who lost his father in his country’s civil war says that he has been pushed back seven times, and is preparing to make his eighth attempt. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has presented evidence of these illegal pushbacks to the Greek government, requesting an investigation, but Athens has denied any wrongdoing.
Interesting then, that the Turkish Coast Guard crew that rescued the Afghan asylum seekers said Greek authorities had sent an email, alerting them of migrants drifting in the area. It’s also interesting that the Turkish government invited journalists onto a coast guard vessel to report on Greece’s troubling maritime activities, as Ankara may soon be forced into an uncomfortable decision of its own on migrants.
Last week, the Turkish news app Muhabir Agency published a video showing hundreds of people scurrying along the edge of an open field. “Afghan refugees entering our country through every part of Van [province],” said the accompanying tweet.
Turkey’s interior minister rejected the footage’s authenticity, but the local governor’s office confirmed that it had been shot near Mount Erek outside Van and that police had detained nearly 1,500 migrants hiding out in abandoned buildings later that day. The video went viral and Lutfu Turkkan, a parliamentarian for the nationalist IYI Party, which has seen its support rise in recent months, wondered aloud on Twitter: “Is Turkey a roadside motel?”
Perhaps a fair question, as the country hosts more refugees than any other, at least four million of them, including 3.6 million Syrians. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long sought the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and aims to be seen as the champion of persecuted Muslims, so his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has mostly had an open door policy for refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and beyond.
Yet, as the stay of Syrians in particular has lengthened and most foreigners have come to be seen as taking precious jobs during an extended economic crisis, Turkish citizens and politicians have become increasingly willing to show their resentment. Putting the usual western dichotomy (think of former US president Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban”) on its head, in Turkey it is often not the far-right populists who denounce and demonise immigrants, but the more liberal-minded opposition alliance, led by IYI and the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has always had a nationalist streak.
In 2019, after winning consecutive elections for Istanbul mayor on a campaign based on social unity and “radical love", the CHP’s Ekrem Imamoglu – widely seen as Mr Erdogan’s main rival – said some Syrians in Turkey might have to be “re-educated” and that he had to “protect our people’s interests”. This time around, Mr Turkkan hinted that Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters were hiding among the new arrivals. Nationalist Turks took up the cause across social media, making clear that #UlkemdeSuriyeliAfganİstemiyorum ("I don’t want Syrians, Afghans in my country") and urging their government to “stop the silent invasion”.
CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu soon chimed in, vowing that following a victory in the next election, scheduled for June 2023, a CHP-led government would send the refugees back home. “Syrians are our relatives,” he said. “However, I believe they will be much happier if they live in the land they were born.”
In response, Mr Erdogan promised continued support for those who have found sanctuary in Turkey. “They have taken refuge with us,” he said last week. “They beg for safety. We cannot tell them to go back to where they were.”
Humane sentiments no doubt, but in late 2019, after the AKP lost control of several major cities, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported that Turkey had done precisely that – forcing dozens, if not hundreds, of Syrian refugees to agree to be returned to their homeland.
Now, as many as 1,000 Afghans are entering Turkey every day, and people smugglers in Van are doing 10 times more business than usual, according to The Daily Telegraph. The pressure is growing on Turkey as well as Greece and Europe. Already this year, nearly 300,000 Afghans have been displaced by the escalating conflict, and a Taliban takeover following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan could spur a mass exodus.
Afghans have been queuing in the thousands to acquire passports and neighbouring Pakistan has shut its borders to migrants, so the burden may again fall on Turkey and the Aegean passage. But this time around, the new arrivals may not be greeted so warmly.
In late spring 2016, I spent more than a month on the Aegean island of Chios, from which one can see Turkey, some eight kilometres away. Reporting on the migrant wave, I met one sympathetic Chian after another whose father or grandmother had come over from Turkey in the population exchange nearly a century prior. They were on the side of those seeking a new life and many were even willing to lend a hand.
A year-and-a-half ago, Mr Erdogan threw the refugee deal with the EU into doubt when he announced that Turkey would open its European border. This not only sparked clashes at the Greek border as Greek authorities sought to keep the migrants out, but also turned a great deal of Greek, and European, compassion into anger and frustration.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has since described Greece, with its pushbacks, as “Europe’s shield”. Denmark has decided Damascus is safe enough to allow for return and this year revoked the asylum status of nearly 200 Syrians. A few days ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously welcomed a million migrants, praised Turkey’s “outstanding job” on refugees. She was probably thinking of the recent actions of her government, which sparked outrage a few weeks ago when it deported a 23-year-old Afghan, who was about to marry a German, for paid traffic fines.
It all makes one wonder just how many migrants must be forced to live the 21st-century version of Homer’s Odyssey before leaders find the courage to treat them with a little human decency.