Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades
The EU faces a looming refugee “disaster”, the president of Cyprus has warned after a threat from Turkey to allow migrants to cross into Europe prompted violent clashes on the Greek-Turkish border.
Nicos Anastasiades said Europe was paying the price for being absent from Middle Eastern conflicts, as he urged the EU to stand up to the “blackmail” vow by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to “open the gates” to refugees fleeing the fighting in northern Syria. “It is going to be a disaster,” the Cypriot leader warned, when asked what would happen if the EU did not push back against Mr Erdogan and protect its 2016 deal with him to stop migration to Europe via Turkey.
“On the one hand is the humanitarian aspect: you should take care of all these people. But who is creating the problem is the question.” Mr Anastasiades’s remarks highlight the rising tensions between the EU and Turkey as the four-year-old accord teeters on the brink. The EU agreed to pay €6bn to support Turkish efforts under a deal struck following the 2015-16 increase in arrivals in the bloc. But the Cypriot president accused Mr Erdogan of attempting to “use the refugees to raise money” from the EU and “taking the advantage to blackmail every time”.
“Will Erdogan continue to play the role he is playing, I mean as a dominator of the area [and] a spoiler of the peace, without any reaction?” Mr Anastasiades asked. “We are absent from the scenes where the events are taking place. Why [are we] not playing a role in Syria, why [are we] not playing a role in Libya? Why are we accepting all we are witnessing as regards to Erdogan’s policy?”
Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, on Tuesday outlined €700m of financial assistance to Greece, saying the border issue was for Europe as a whole to address. “We will manage it in an orderly way, with unity, solidarity and determination,” Ms Von der Leyen said at a press conference with other EU leaders including Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greek prime minister. “Those who test Europe’s unity will be disappointed,” she said.
Turkey, which is home to 3.6m Syrian refugees, accuses EU countries of failing to take their fair share of the refugee burden — and of failing to step up to help the Turkish military in its efforts to fend off an assault by the Russia-backed Syrian regime in the rebel-held enclave of Idlib. The regime offensive has created what aid groups say is the worst humanitarian crisis of Syria’s nine-year civil war, with almost 1m people forced to flee towards the Turkish border in less than three months.
While the Turkey-Syria border remains closed, Mr Erdogan has sought to raise the pressure on the EU by encouraging refugees already in Turkey to head to the country’s frontiers with Greece, telling Europe: “You are now taking your share”. Mr Anastasiades said 100 African nationals on Tuesday became the latest people to seek asylum in Cyprus, after they arrived in the Turkish-occupied northern part of the Mediterranean island.
Cyprus has the highest number of refugees per capita of any EU country, with about 15,000 registered asylum seekers and a population of 850,000. Most flew from Turkey to Northern Cyprus before crossing the unofficial border into the internationally recognised Greek Cypriot state in the south of the island.
Refugees are entitled to social benefits and can work, but accommodation has become overcrowded following a wave of new arrivals this year: 4,000 since January. Cyprus is the easiest country for Syrian refugees seeking a future in Europe to enter but much the hardest to move on from. It is not a member of the Schengen visa-free zone, its international airport is tightly controlled, and it lacks passenger shipping links with the rest of the EU.