On Monday the European Union leaders will meet with the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, in Brussels for a special summit to try find a solution to the refugee crisis.
On the ground, however, that crisis is constantly shifting. Now the focus is on Greece, which is being left to deal with those many thousands still arriving on its shores after the route north through the Balkans was effectively blocked. But it could soon switch to Italy.
Donald Tusk, the European Council president, traveled to Ankara and Athens on Thursday to lay the groundwork for the summit.
He called on economic migrants not to risk their lives or money to make the dangerous journey to Europe and also called on E.U. states to stop taking unilateral actions. “Wherever you come from: Do not come to Europe,” he said. “It’s all for nothing.”
Meanwhile, the European Commission is piling on the pressure to ensure that borderless travel with Europe can be reestablished.
A roadmap presented by the Commission on Friday highlights the economic cost of border controls, underlining the need for a swift return to a functioning Schengen system.
“Temporary border controls not only hamper the free movement of persons, they also come with significant economic costs,” the report stated.
The Commission estimates that the direct costs of between €5 and €18 billion, or around $5.6 and $19.6 billion, on Europe’s economy, largely due to the decline of freight, tourism and workers who cross the borders on a daily basis.
“Schengen is one of the most cherished achievements of European integration, and the costs of losing it would be huge. Our aim is to lift all internal border controls as quickly as possible, and by December 2016 at the latest,” said First Vice-President Frans Timmermans in a statement released on Friday.
“It’s good that the Commission is showing how fast the market can go belly up,” Markus Ferber, an MEP for Germany’s Christian Social Union told Handelsblatt.
However, getting the Schengen system back on track hinges on two conditions: reducing numbers of refugees and improving management of external borders. Turkey plays a key role on both counts.
On Monday, Ankara and Brussels will take stock of their agreed action plan, and they will likely draw mixed conclusions. “More could be done,” sources in Brussels told Handelsblatt.
One example of this is the border village of Inanli, which lies barely 200 meters from Syria. Here armored vehicles chug their way through the olive groves not to attack enemy positions, but to stop Syrian refugees from entering Turkey. To that end, they built a barbed-wire wall 3 meters high and 30 centimeters thick.
Attacks by the Syrian army backed by Russian fighter jets, combined with territorial gains by Kurdish militias around the city of Aleppo are driving tens of thousands of people to flee. They are stuck at the border because Turkey no longer lets them pass. Meanwhile, soldiers are instructed that those who have already fled should be stopped from continuing their journey from the western coast of Turkey across to Greece.
Turkey has found itself at the frontline of the refugee crisis. It has taken in 2.7 million Syrian refugees in the past five years. In comparison, last year nearly 1.3 million people applied for asylum in Europe, including a total of 476,000 in Germany. In Anatolia there are cities where there is one Syrian for every Turkish citizen. In Turkey’s southern-central settlement Kilis, near the border town of Inanli, the population has doubled to 180,000.
Abdulsami is one of the many newcomers. One afternoon he wanders out of Kilis’ industrial zone, alongside three colleagues. Two months ago, the 28-year-old man left his home near Aleppo, to seek refuge in Turkey. Since then he has found work on a building site, where he is in charge of installing the water pipes. Neither he nor his employer has a problem with the fact he works illegally.
Since mid-January, Syrians can officially work in Turkey. However, businesses and construction firms prefer to recruit the new workforce unofficially, as that way they can skirt the new minimum wage, which amounts to around €400 per month. But Abdulsami doesn’t mind. He is relieved to be able to work at all. “We are constantly asked if we can work or help out,” he explained in broken Turkish.
“The provinces of Brindisi and Lecce could become a new Lampedusa.”
Abdulsami sleeps in one of the refugee camps which Turkey has built, seven on each side of the border. Abdulsalam al-Sharif, who runs the camps, says logistics at the camp ran smoothly at the beginning, but when Aleppo was bombarded, some 30,000 new refugees arrived at the camps. “Since then, everything is tighter,” he said.
In February, on the orders from Ankara, he built a new camp on the Turkish side of the border. Refugees had free access to all the basics and could leave the camp during the day to work, usually illegally. “Despite this, many want to return to Syria, to be with relatives, or because they feel useless here,” said al-Sharif.
But his efforts to create a normal every-day life in the camp are undermined by the border troops: Whenever the wall gets a hole in it, the soldiers simply patch it up, in line with the goals of the European Union.
And as borders are sealed, refugees are searching out new routes to escape bombardments at home. For example, after word spread of the closure of the Greece-Macedonia border and the chaos in Idomeni, many migrants are rethinking their plans.
“Now the Adriatic will be the focus again,” said a diplomatic source in Vienna, adding that one route would likely run from Greece to Albania, and then by ship to Italy, and another would take migrants along the Adriatic coast through Albania and Croatia to Italy.
This stokes fears of an increase in the number of refugees in areas which have been little affected so far and also means that Albania will increasingly assume a key role.
According to Frontex, the small Balkan country has witnessed a sharp rise in border crossings. Meanwhile, the nation, with its ailing economy, is not in a position to cope with the new arrivals: Frontex estimates that it only has capacity to take in around 200 migrants.
Traffickers plying their trade in Athens have long offered alternative routes, one of which takes refugees to Europe via Albania. The nearly 300-kilometer Greek-Albanian border is scantly controlled and runs through pathless mountains. But despite recent snowfall, these peaks are not insurmountable. This was proven after the fall of the communist regime in 1990, when hundreds of thousands of Albanians flocked over the mountains to Greece.
Now the government in the Albanian capital Tirana is reacting to the challenge, planning emergency accommodation for up to 10,000 people in a former barracks in Korca.
The second alternative route involves migrants being smuggled on an Adriatic ferry crossing. Every day several ships travel from the western Greek ports of Patras and Igoumenitsa to Bari, Brindisi and Ancona in Italy. Back in the 2000s, this formed a key route for migrants heading to Europe from Asia and the Middle East.
In the meantime, both ports have been well secured, piers are sealed with high steel mesh fences and trucks are searched. Italian ports have recently introduced even stricter checks. This means few of the 30,000 refugees stranded in Greece will likely be able to take the Adriatic route.
But fears of an increase in new arrivals are running high within Italy, which has beefed up controls off the coast of Sicily, where every day new boats full of refugees land. Politicians’ alarm is palpable. “If the Balkan route is closed, Italy faces a terrible phenomenon,” said Michele Emiliano, premier of the Apulia region that runs along the southern Adriatic coast.
“The provinces of Brindisi and Lecce could become a new Lampedusa.”
Thomas Ludwig reports from Brussels. Ozan Demircan is an investigative reporter for Handelsblatt. Gerd Höhler is the paper’s correspondent in Athens, Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is based in Vienna, Regina Krieger is Handelsblatt’s Rome correspondent. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.