Turkish security forces stopped hundreds of people, mainly Syrians, from travelling towards western Turkey’s border with Greece on Tuesday in a bid to reach Europe, potentially opening up a new front in the escalating migrant crisis.
Turkey’s gendarmerie briefly threw up barricades near the border city of Edirne, around 17 km by road from the Greek border, as hundreds of people there thronged the main highway, and others took to surrounding hills in a bid to reach the frontier.
Bus services from Istanbul to Edirne were suspended as authorities tried to stem the flow of people, and hundreds of would-be migrants gathered nearby demanding land access to the EU, as fears over deadly sea-routes mounted.
“Save us from drowning” placard-waving crowds chanted near the main bus station in Istanbul.
The migrants used social media to organise ahead of Tuesday’s effort to reach Greece by land, hoping to draw attention to the dangers of crossing into Europe by sea.
Turkey is sheltering two million people – the largest refugee population in the world – but difficult conditions and a lack of work have seen a growing tide of migrants trying to smuggle themselves into EU-member Greece, most taking to perilous boats.
Earlier this month images of a dead toddler washed up on a Turkish beach shocked the world, and prompted fierce debate about how best to manage the growing numbers of people trying to reach Europe.
But many desperate travellers are continuing to attempt the crossing to tantalisingly close Greek islands, some lying as little as 4 km from the Turkish coast. On Tuesday, at least 22 people drowned when their boat capsized.
“I don’t like the sea, I can’t swim. We don’t want to die in the sea,” one man outside the bus station told Reuters.
Near Edirne, security forces ordered the mainly Syrian refugees off the road, where they attempted to shelter from the sun under trees, with some clutching umbrellas to shade their children and one woman in a wheelchair. They vowed to stay until authorities allowed them to continue to the border.
“Life is really tough here, they offered us shelter but nothing else, We have no rights, we need jobs we can’t get,” said 27-year old Sherif, from Qamishli in Syria.
The European Union is failing to present a unified front to the migration crisis, as some countries welcome refugees and others tighten border security. Greece has increasingly struggled to cope as it bears the brunt of an estimated 464,000 people who have crossed the Mediterranean this year.
Turkey meanwhile says it has spent $6.5 billion responding to the humanitarian catastrophe that has spilled over from neighbouring Syria and Iraq