There has long been a fear that Greece will become the victim of a bottleneck through the Balkans. This often discussed fear has finally become a reality. On March 8, three Balkan nations joined with a growing number of countries imposing increasingly restrictive immigration policies. Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia announced they would only allow people to cross their borders if they already possessed valid visas. This would effectively stop the thousands of migrants in Greece from moving north in an attempt to reach asylum in Germany. Also on March 9, Macedonia announced it would no longer allow migrants to freely enter the country. One report estimated that 13,000-15,000 migrants were currently living in makeshift camps near Greece’s border with Macedonia. Though exact estimates differ, numerous media organizations reported on March 9 that over 35,000 migrants from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are currently inside Greece. The number is expected to rise as more migrants land on mainland Greece and islands near the border with Turkey.
This last development puts even greater pressure on Greece. However, it also poses new challenges for other countries in the region. Hungary had seen a drop in migrants attempting to enter the country after it built a border fence and increased penalties for entering illegally. According to the Washington Post, over 2500 people were arrested for attempting to enter Hungary in February (far higher than previous months). Bulgaria and Albania have both increased monitoring are their borders with Greece. The Italian Government is particularly concerned migrants about migrants reaching the Albanian cost and then crossing the Adriatic Sea to Italy. As a result, the two countries announced they would conduct joint military patrols in the Adriatic Sea.
The European Union’s latest attempt to handle the crisis has come under considerable public criticism and legal scrutiny. On March 8, EU and Turkish leaders announced a new plan to return discourage further migrants from attempting the dangerous trip to Greece. The plan indicated that all undocumented migrants arriving in Greece would returned to Turkey. In exchange, the Turkish Government had requested that the EU resettle one Syrian migrant for each returned to Turkey (the so-called ‘one for one’ policy). As part of the plan, the EU also pledged to more quickly implement visa-free travel for Turks and faster approval of a €3 billion Euro aid package. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has criticised the agreement as a violation of the EU’s international obligations and the European Convention on Human Rights. Even if the plan is not stopped by a legal challenge, it is unclear when it would be fully implemented.
According to NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, NATO ships are being deployed to the Aegean sea in a bid to deter people-smugglers taking migrants from Turkey to Greece. The announcement follows a request from Turkey, Greece and Germany at a defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels.
MR Stoltenberg has disclosed that the mission would not be about “stopping or pushing back refugee boats,” adding that instead, NATO will contribute “critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking.” He further disclosed that the decision was made in order to help Greece and Turkey “manage a human tragedy in a better way then we have managed to do so far.” Earlier, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter commented that targeting the “criminal syndicate that is exploiting these poor people” would have the greatest humanitarian impact.
NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2, which is under German command, will lead the operation in co-operation with Greek and Turkish authorities. According to the United Nations refugee agency, almost 75,000 migrants and refugees have already arrived in Greece by sea in 2016.
Thousands of Syrians, mostly women and children, remain stuck at Turkish borders after fleeing offensive in Aleppo. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, on the 9th of February 2016 called on Turkey to admit all civilians who are fleeing danger and seeking international protection. Tens of thousands of Syrians escaped intense air strikes in the northern province of Aleppo. Recent months have been dominated by intensive Russian air strikes and attacks on civilians have become a near-everyday occurrence. At least 500 reported killed in the province this month.
Turkey has already taken in more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees over the past five years hosting the largest number of refugees in the world. Its borders are considered the gateway to safety, leaving many stranded across them. The Turkish government has recently expressed frustration over the worsening migrant crisis saying that it has now reached the end of its “capacity to absorb”. Turkey applies strict controls on admission of refugees while maintaining an open door policy for those fleeing immediate harm to their lives.
The United Nations’ refugee agency has called on Turkey to open the border to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing a government offensive in Aleppo province, who are stranded near the Bab al-Salameh crossing. According to UN officials half of all Syrians have been forced to leave their homes, often multiple times, making Syria the largest displacement crisis globally. More than a quarter million Syrians lost their lives since the onset of the crisis in 2011. Protests escalated into civil war and the armed rebellion led to the rise of Islamists and jihadists, the so-called Islamic State, whose brutal tactics caused global outrage.
Today UK, U.S and Russia are leading air strikes in order to regain rebel parts of the country. Situation is worsening following the intensified Russian air operation in the province of Aleppo, an area divided between government and rebel control for years. Moreover according to ICRC the harshening of winter is pushing people’s resilience to the limits.
The United Nation Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs from March 2012 until February 2016 registered a total of 13.5M Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance; 4.6M fled the country and 6.6M have been displaced within the borders due to violence. Internally displaced the population struggles to survive and they are chasing after charities. The displacement of refugees is across several neighbour countries and Europe.
Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu attended the Informal Meeting of EU Ministers of Foreign Affairs on the 6th of February 2016. The prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus envisaged a further 600,000 refugees at the borders raising criticism on the Russian tactics. European member states requested immediate steps from Ankara to improve the situation for refugees in Turkey deploying without delay the €3 billion pledged by the European Union.
Turkey is currently under pressure to allow in 30,000 Syrian refugees stranded on its border. Migrants have inflicted a “huge strain” on the country’s economy, and called on the international community to assist Ankara in handling the burgeoning crisis. The main route from the north into Aleppo has been cut off and humanitarian aid cannot be efficiently delivered. The current situation is leading to a severe geopolitical turmoil.
Turkey is facing multiple problems and an internal division. The Russian power play in Syria vanished Turkish hopes for instituting a no-fly zone on the other side of the Syrian border and as Syria burns, Turkey’s Kurdish problem is getting worse. There is an increasing concern that the PYD’s success in Syria will dangerously strengthen the PKK in its fight against Turkey.
The Assad regime received support on the ground by the Iranian militias and the intensified Russian aerial bombardment led the United States to lose control over the entire operation. Within the next weeks the Assad’s bombing campaign will continue costing the lives of many other civilians.
The likelihood of Aleppo becoming the “Sarajevo” of Syria is increasing on a daily basis.
Israel’s defense minister has accused Turkey of purchasing oil from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, thereby funding the militants’ activities.
Speaking in Athens, Greece, Moshe Yaalon disclosed that IS had “enjoyed Turkish money for oil for a very, very long period of time.” Speaking to reporters after a meeting with his Greek counterpart, Mr Yaalon further disclosed that “its up to Turkey, the Turkish government, the Turkish leadership, to decide whether they want to be part of any kind of cooperation to fight terrorism,” adding, “this is not the case so far. As you know, Daesh (Islamic State) enjoyed Turkish money for oil for a very, very long period of time. I hope that it will be ended.” Mr Yaalon also alleged that Turkey had “permitted jihadists to move from Europe to Syria and Iraq and and back.”
Turkey has denied allowing IS smuggling. Recently, the United States also rejected Russian claims that Turkish government officials were in league with the militants. While last month, US State Department officials rejected Russian allegations of Turkish government involvement, a state department spokesman did disclose that IS oil was being smuggled into Turkey via middlemen.
Efforts by Israel and Turkey to repair damaged ties already hit a set back earlier this month over demands for compensation for the deaths of ten Turkish activists on a ship that was carrying pro-Palestinian activists in 2010. They were killed in clashes with Israeli commandos who intercepted a flotilla that was trying to break Israel’s blockade on Gaza. In December, senior Israeli and Turkish officials met in a bid to try to repair relations, raising hopes of progress in negotiations to import Israeli natural gas.
IS has captured swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, which includes operating oil fields that are now under the militant group’s control.
On Friday, 11 December, a United States Treasury official disclosed that the so-called Islamic State (IS) group has made more than US $500 million (£330m) in trading oil.
According to Adam Szubin, despite its ongoing battle to over throw the regime in Syria, IS’ “primary customer” has been the government of the country’s President Bashar al-Assad, stating, “the two are trying to slaughter each other and they are still engaged in millions and millions of dollars of trade.” He added that the group is estimated to be making as much as US $40 million a month from the oil trade, including from buyers in Turkey. Szubin has further disclosed that IS had also looted up to US $1 billion from banks in territory that it held.
Szubin has indicated that cutting off the group’s cash flow is a key part of the coalition strategy to defeat IS, noting that unlike other designated terrorist groups, IS has not relied on funding from foreign donors but has instead generated money from its own operations.
For over a year now, the US-led coalition has been bombing IS targets, including oil facilities, in Syria and in neighbouring Iraq. Recently, the US-led coalition launched a military campaign, dubbed Tidal Wave 2, which has seen air strikes intensify on IS oil fields, refineries and tankers that are being used by the group. According to findings focusing on late 2015 from UK defense consultancy HIS, IS currently generates around US $80 million a month, mainly from oil revenues, adding that it found that other sources of income include taxation, drug and antiquities smuggling, robbery and kidnapping and the sale of electricity.