Hundreds of migrants walked through northwest Turkey toward its borders with Greece and Bulgaria on Friday, Turkish media reported, after a senior official said Ankara will no longer stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe.
On Thursday, Turkey said 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike by Syrian government forces in Syria’s northwestern Idlib region on Thursday.
The official subsequently told Reuters Turkish police, coastguard and border security officials had been ordered to stand down on refugees’ land and sea crossings towards Europe in anticipation of the imminent arrival of refugees from Idlib.
Demiroren news agency said there were around 300 migrants, including women and children, in the group which began heading towards the borders between the two European Union countries and Turkey’s Edirne province at around midnight.
Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Moroccans were among those in the group, it said.
It said migrants had also gathered on the western Turkish coastal district of Ayvacik in Canakkale province with the aim of travelling by boat to Greece’s Lesbos island.
Reuters could not independently confirm who the people were nor where they were headed. Video footage of the migrants broadcast by pro-government Turkish television channels could also not immediately be verified.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to open the gates for migrants to travel to Europe. If it did so, it would reverse a pledge Turkey made to the European Union in 2016 and could draw Western powers into the standoff over Idlib.
Some one million civilians have been displaced in Syria near the Turkish border since December as Russian-backed Syrian government forces seized territory from Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, creating the worst humanitarian crisis in the nine-year war.
Turkish broadcaster NTV showed scores of people walking through fields wearing backpacks and said the refugees had tried to cross the Kapikule border into Bulgaria, but were not allowed through.
It said the same group of migrants had then walked through fields to reach the Pazarkule border crossing into Greece, but it was unclear what happened to them thereafter.
Meanwhile Greek government sources said this morning that Greece has tightened sea and land borders with Turkey after the overnight developments Idlib.
The Greek sources, who declined to be identified, said Athens was also in contact with the European Union and NATO on the matter.
Greece was the main gateway for hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming out of Turkey in a mass exodus in 2015 and 2016, until a deal brokered with the EU stemmed the flow.
On Thursday, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said authorities would tighten border controls to prevent the coronovirus reaching islands in the Aegean, where thousands of migrants are living in poor conditions waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.