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An Aegean tug of refugees

Burak Ünveren standing in a newsroom, wearing a suit
Burak Ünveren
October 18, 2022

So, Greece and Turkey are in another spat over migrants at their border. Neither side wants to deal with the issue. It's time the EU helped them find a solution in talks as equals, writes DW's Burak Ünveren.

Greek authorities recscue migrants at the Aegean Sea
Migrants regularly attempt to cross the Aegean SeaImage: Hellenic Coast Guard/AP Photo/picture alliance

The Aegean Sea is home to two nations, Greece and Turkey. It is also where tens of thousands of migrants have set out on a journey to change their lives — some dream of a better or safer life in Europe, and some get to make their dreams come true. But for others, the Aegean Sea is a nightmare.

On either side of the Aegean, there is Greece and Turkey. The two nations are, in some ways, surprisingly similar — they share common ground, both geographically and culturally. But they do like to get into spats and squabbles. In fact, they are especially good at finding common ground for talking trash about each other — like two siblings on either side of a shared childhood bedroom.

'Inhuman' images at the Evros River

On October 16, Greece released an "inhuman" image, purporting to show 92 naked and bruised migrants. It accused Turkey of having pushed the migrants across the Evros river into Greece. The Evros flows into the Aegean Sea.

It's important to note here that the image has not been fully verified.

And yet the Greek Minister for Migration, Notis Mitarachi, has accused Turkey of an unethical treatment of the migrants and called the image a "shame for civilization."

Turkey denies any wrongdoing. Its Deputy Interior Minister, Ismail Catakli, told Greece to stop "[its] manipulations and dishonesty." 

And so a new round of trash talk has begun.

The truth is, however, that both sides have been accused of wrongdoing by rights groups, such as the Berlin-based Mare Liberum. 

DW journalist Burak Ünveren
DW journalist Burak Ünveren Image: Philipp Böll/DW

It's a tug of words and people

It shouldn't surprise anybody if there were tangible proof that either of the two sides were responsible for the fate of the 92 migrants at the Evros river — if, indeed, the image can be verified as true. 

Greece often accuses Turkey of pushing migrants its way, and Turkey accuses Greece of pushing them back. And we, as observers, are always asked to choose a side ourselves, instead of considering the possibility that they both could be right and/or wrong.

It's easy to choose a side and throw stones at the opposition, but it's not always as easy to stand somewhere in the middle, even if that is the right thing to do. But stand on the center-ground and one thing becomes perfectly clear: Neither Greece nor Turkey wants to keep and look after any migrants.

They 'may suddenly arrive one night'

This migrant crisis at the Aegean Sea is not the only issue that faces Greece and Turkey. They have other disagreements, including over energy security. 

Turkey has great aspirations in that area, and it's started to drill in waters where both countries may have interests. Indeed, some of that drilling has been classified as "unauthorized" by the European Commission.

But Turkey may weaponize the migrant issue to leverage pressure on the region. It has done it before and it's worked every time. 

President Erdoğan has, for instance, threatened to open Turkey's borders and let refugees leave the country for Europe in the past.

In 2016, Turkey's position forced the European Union to strike a deal, whereby Turkey was compensated with €6 billion to look after refugees in its territory in return for promising to stop "irregular" migration into the EU via Turkey.

More recently, Turkey has escalated its rhetoric with an age-old Turkish saying, "We may arrive one night", which speaks for itself, and is making Greece and the EU nervous.

Europe must decide: Is it a union or a community of equals?

Standing where we do today, it might look like pushing people back and forth, like a tug of war across the Aegean, has become an effective foreign policy — not just for Turkey and Greece, but for the whole of Europe.

But if there is any genuine interest in resolving this, one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in modern history, both sides should sit together in a European format and talk about feasible solutions. 

That format could be the EU, but it could also be a new platform, such as the European Political Community, where European countries interact at eye level.

In order to prevent such horrible images from emerging again, European countries are going to need to facilitate a sustainable dialogue between Greece, a member state, and Turkey, which is a candidate state of the EU. 

If it doesn't at least do that, it will be an enabler, and perhaps even complicit, in yet more trash talk that could one day get real — and not just on the issue of refugees. Greece and Turkey have layers of issues that go deeper than a weekend provocation and a war of words. Europe can and must be more than just "deeply concerned" about this tug between these two nations.

Edited by: Zulfikar Abbany

*Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously referred to Ismail Catakli as Turkey's Interior Minister. Ismail Catakli is the country's deputy Interior Minister. We apologize for the error.

Burak Ünveren standing in a newsroom, wearing a suit
Burak Ünveren Multimedia editor with a focus on Turkish foreign policy and German-Turkish relations.