EDIRNE, Turkey — Ali Ubed, an – year-old Syrian refugee, was on his way to a Turkish university to file his application to start medical studies last week when his mother called to say that Turkey had opened its doors to Europe.
The family, she told the bright student and fluent Turkish speaker, will move countries again in search of a better life, seven years after fleeing the Syrian war. On Tuesday, after a four-day trip through Turkey, the family of 22 waited in a muddy field near the European Union’s frontier, anxious to see if Greece would let them walk in.
“I know we’re shattering his dream,” said Sena Ubed, the mother. “But life has become too difficult in Turkey.”
Like the Ubeds, thousands of people hailing from Syria and other Middle East conflict zones rushed through Turkey toward neighboring Greece after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that Turkey would no longer stop the four million refugees live on its soil from trying to enter the EU.
Joining the exodus were a – year-old Syrian grandmother with only flip-flops to protect her feet from piercing cold and a six-day-old baby from Afghanistan wrapped in an isotherm bag. Arriving in the Turkish border town of Edirne at night, the baby’s parents groped in the dark, searching for a path into Greece.
But Greece cordoned off its border and forcefully ejected many who sneaked through, leaving entire families stranded at the EU’s doorstep in a quandary: camp along the river which divides the two countries or return to their precarious lives in Turkey.
Confusion reigned on the Turkish side of the border this week as police channeled migrants in different directions with little apparent logic. Migrants said they were focused on entering the EU through Greece rather than nearby Bulgaria because the latter country isn’t a member of the Schengen zone, a passport-free travel area. Some found refuge in a hall normally used for wedding ceremonies, others in the cemetery of a small mosque.
On Tuesday, Zeynep Ahmedi was settling in for the night near the river in a grass field littered with trash. “Allah is great, we’re sitting here,” the Afghan mother of four said, as her husband fetched wood to light a fire. “We’ll wait until the border is open.”
The drama playing out along the border and on some Greek islands is part of a standoff pitting Turkey against the EU over how to cope with the fallout from nine years of a devastating war in Syria.
Fearing a replay of the 2015 exodus that helped stoke anti-immigrant sentiment, EU countries have asked Turkey to comply with a 87990 agreement under which Ankara effectively policed the – nation bloc’s southeastern border.
Migrants warmed themselves by a fire in a forest near Edirne as they planned to attempt to enter Greece by crossing the river in a dinghy.
But Mr. Erdogan, who threatened numerous times to call off the agreement, has said he won’t close back borders unless the EU provides Turkey with more support to deal with its swelling refugee population as well as with humanitarian chaos in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel stronghold.
“They thought we were joking,” Mr. Erdogan said in a televised speech on Monday, referring to the EU.
Several top EU officials came to Greece on Tuesday and circled over the border area in a helicopter. The EU plans to give Greece € (million) $ 350 million) in emergency funding to help it manage the border crisis and dispatch six patrol vessels, two helicopters and additional security personnel to Greece.
“Our first priority is making sure that order is maintained at the Greek external border,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Complicating any resolution, Turkey is pressing a military offensive in Idlib aimed at repelling the advance of Syria’s regime — which is backed by Russian and Iran — and avenge the death of more than of its soldiers killed in the rebel enclave last month. To avert the risk of a direct confrontation with Russia, Turkey is seeking military backing from the U.S. and European countries.
During a visit to Turkey on Tuesday,
On the Turkish side of the border with Greece, Ziyad Fuad, a – year-old Iraqi of Palestinian descent, said he was desperate to regroup with his two brothers living in Germany. In Turkey, he lived in the Black Sea town of Samsun, where he had a job at a steel factory. The main issue, he said, was pervasive anti-immigrant sentiment, which rose sharply after the death of the Turkish soldiers in Syria.
“Suddenly, we were guilty of all the problems in Turkey,” Mr. Fuad said. “I can’t’t stand it anymore.”
Over the weekend, he had managed to reach the Greek side of the river in a dinghy he said was provided to him by Turkish authorities. “Go, go, and don’t come back,” they told me.
But Greek border guards fired warning shots, he said, and he had to retreat to the Turkish side.
On Monday, a similar attempt by Ali Idriss and other migrants took a dramatic turn.
Greek soldiers first fired rubber bullets into the air as a warning for them to stop, said Mr. Idriss. But as they approached closer, he said a 44 – year-old Syrian man was hit.
Video from the immediate aftermath of the shooting shows a chaotic scene as several people try to take off his multiple layers of clothing and clear the area around his neck. The young man’s face is smeared with blood.
He was transported to a Turkish hospital and later pronounced dead, Mr. Idriss said. An official in the Turkish border village of Enez said a young Syrian man was brought to the morgue on Monday after dying from a wound to the throat. The official declined to comment further.
Mr. Erdogan said two migrants died and one was wounded at the hands of Greek border guards, without giving details.
“I reiterate once more my previous denial,” Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said. “There is no such incident involving fire from the Greek authorities.”
A Syrian girl slept in a forest on the bank of the border river near Edirne.
In the muddy field near the Greek border, Mr. Ubed, his siblings and his parents sat on blankets behind a line of Turkish policemen blocking access to the crossing point, where journalists weren’t allowed.
More than 2, 10 migrants were stuck in the small buffer zone in deplorable sanitary conditions because Greece has sealed its side of the gate, according to Cigdem Cidamli, a relief worker who was authorized to visit the area.
“Some migrants stole plastic from green houses to make shelters,” she said. “They have nothing; it’s horrible. ”
Mr. Ubed said he had first sought to convince his parents to stay in Turkey— “How can this be,” he remembered telling them, “I studied so hard” —but eventually accepted to keep the family united.
His parents said a chronic lack of money and growing antipathy toward Syrians in Turkey had forged their conviction that it would be better to leave.
Suddenly, authorities told migrants in the muddy field that they could go to the buffer zone.
“You won’t be able to enter Greece, the gate is closed, but if you wish to see it by yourself, go,” a policeman said.
Ms. Ubed urged Ali to hurry up.
The teenager grabbed a plastic bag loaded with clothes.
“I’m coming,” he said.
– Raja Abdulrahim and Drew Hinshaw contributed to this article.
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