191009 Syria
Syrian refugees at a camp in southern Turkey on Aug. 31, 2019. Image Credit: New York Times

Luxembourg: EU officials discussing migration Tuesday expressed concerns that a threat by Turkey to send its troops into northeast Syria might provoke a new wave of refugees to Europe.

Interior ministers meeting in Luxembourg noted that the so-called eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece has once again become the main channel for asylum-seekers reaching Europe.

“For Greece, the spike of the increase of the flows between May and today is an increase of 240 per cent. You can imagine the scale of the challenge,” said Greece’s alternate minister for migration, Giorgios Koumoutsakos.

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Greece, Bulgaria and Cyprus delivered a joint statement at the meeting calling attention to the eastern Mediterranean route.

It said: “Geopolitical factors, including conflicts in the broader area particularly in Syria, entail that we will most likely see a continuation of this alarming trend in the short to medium term.”

Turkey has said its preparations for a military operation in northern Syria against Kurdish fighters it views as “terrorists” is complete, and it has deployed armoured vehicles to the border.

Its path into northeast Syria was cleared by US President Donald Trump on Monday ordering American troops out of that zone because of Turkey’s intentions.

Officials in the EU said that if Turkey does invade part of Syria, many of the four million refugees Turkey is hosting — most of them Syrians — may decide to head to Europe to avoid being forcibly pushed back into their unstable homeland.

“I hope there won’t be an operation,” Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, told reporters.

“But imagine that you’re a refugee in Turkey, you’re Syrian — the risk exists that you might be transported one day... into northeast Syria. That’s a factor that could generate a wave towards Europe,” he said.

Asked about that scenario in a media conference, the EU’s commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said “the European Union remains committed to the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian state”.

The EU, he added, urged “the cessation of hostilities, the protection of civilians and unhindered, safe and sustainable humanitarian access to all of Syria”.

The EU Security Commissioner Julian King was asked about Trump’s criticism that European countries had “refused” US demands to take back their citizens who had fought for the Islamic State group and were now being held in northeast Syria.

He replied that the issue was “a matter for national authorities, and they guard that jealously”.

He noted that EU agencies stood ready to help gather and process evidence of alleged crimes committed by the ex-fighters should they ever be repatriated to face trial.