Every day, despite bad weather and freezing temperatures, thousands of people are still attempting the dangerous voyage across the Aegean in flimsy dinghies and shoddy life vests, hoping to reach Greece from Turkey.
With 2.5 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey and tens of thousands amassed at the border fleeing Russian and Syrian bombings in Aleppo, Ankara is now Europe’s key partner in solving the refugee crisis.
Chancellor Angela Merkel knows that, which is why she is making her second trip this week in less than four months to Turkey.
Germany took in 1.1 million asylum seekers last year and more than 90,000 arrived in January. With public support waning for her open-door policy, Ms. Merkel and her conservative Christian Democrats have been losing political support.
The chancellor needs to find a way to reduce the flow of refugees into Germany, which is why she once again beat a path to Ankara, after making a similar trip in October.
On Monday she met with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Recep Tayipp Erdogan to discuss the refugee issue.
The outcome was a commitment to series of measures that aim to tackle illegal immigration, including the idea of deploying NATO ships to patrol the seas between Turkey and Greece.
Ms. Merkel said part of a joint strategy would also be to provide a way for people to legally leave Turkey for Europe. Arrivals in Europe would be “controlled, legal and organized by us,” she said.
In November, Ankara and the European Union held a summit on the issue, and Brussels offered Turkey €3 billion to help care for the Syrian refugees that are living in camps in the country.
The E.U. also agreed to ease visa restrictions for Turkish citizens and to revive stalled talks on the country’s accession to the 28-nation bloc.
In return, the Turkish authorities were supposed to crack down on smuggling gangs and work to reduce the flow of refugees into Greece. Ankara also promised to build new schools and give work permits to Syrians to improve their living conditions and reduce their desire to leave for Europe.
Schmoozing with Mr. Erodgan puts Ms. Merkel in an awkward position. Turkey has become increasingly authoritarian, with frequent attacks on journalists, as well as its Kurdish minority.
Turkey has also been accused of supporting or at least turning a blind eye to the radical Islamic State across the border, which controls large parts of Syria.
Yet, as she continues to struggle to persuade other E.U. countries to accept refugees, Ms. Merkel has been forced to pin her hopes on Ankara.
But this pragmatic approach has come under fire in Germany, as her political rivals accuse her of sacrificing legitimate human rights concerns for a politically expedient solution to the refugee crisis.
“We have to be careful that Germany doesn’t become open to blackmail by a regime that doesn’t not share our values in the slightest, and that shares responsibility for the whole disaster,” Sahra Wagenknecht, the parliamentary leader of the far-left Left Party, told public broadcaster SWR.
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a member of the European Parliament and a member of the Free Democrats, questioned the wisdom of her latest visit.
“Repeated trips to Turkey are no replacement for the government’s own organized refugee policy,” he told Deutschland Radio. “It is all just squabbling in Berlin, and a trip to Turkey won’t change anything there.”
Ms. Merkel is in a vulnerable position because her attempts to befriend Turkey have so far brought little progress on the refugee front.
According to the International Organization for Migration, 68,000 refugees arrived on Greek islands in the first five weeks of 2016, almost 30 times the number for the same period last year.
The group said 374 people died attempting the crossing.
On Monday alone, at least 35 people, including 11 children, drowned in two separate incidents.
Still, Turkey argues that it is almost impossible to monitor the hundreds of kilometers of its Aegean coastline.
Faced with Turkey’s apparent inability or unwillingness to devote resources to the problem, NATO forces may be called in. Turkey, Germany and Greece are all members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Ms. Merkel said Monday that the next meeting of the Western military defense alliance would consider “to what extent NATO can be helpful with the surveillance situation at sea” to support the E.U.’s small border force, Frontex.
Chancellor Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu promised to improve cooperation between Greek and Turkish coastguards and Frontex.
Up to now cooperation has been hampered by the decades-old disagreement between Athens and Ankara over Cyprus, which still divides the countries.
With intensified fighting in Syria, the problem is not going away any time soon.
On Monday, tens of thousands more Syrians amassed at the Turkish border, fleeing Russian airstrikes and Syrian Army attacks on opposition forces around Aleppo.
Russia backs President Bashar al-Assad and although Moscow had pledged to attack the Islamic State, the United States has accused the country of targeting opposition groups instead to help Mr. Assad retain power.
Last week’s uptick in military activity caused the postponement of talks in Geneva aimed at finding a path towards ending the five-year civil war.
“We have been, in the past few days, not just appalled but horrified by what has been caused in the way of human suffering for tens of thousands of people by bombing — primarily from the Russian side,” Ms. Merkel said in Ankara.
She said Russia’s actions violated a U.N. resolution against attacking civilians.
Germany and Turkey asked Moscow to respect the resolution, the chancellor said.
Experts warn that if Aleppo falls to the forces of President Assad, another 1 million people are likely to attempt to flee the country.
Turkey has kept the borders shut for days, and only allowed through the wounded to be treated in Turkey.
“Repeated trips to Turkey are no replacement for the government’s own organized refugee policy.”
Over the weekend, the European Union appealed to Ankara to open its borders to displaced Syrians.
Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Yalcin Akdogan said Europeans should stop lecturing his country about what it should do.
“On the one hand they say ‘Open your borders, take everyone in’ and on the other hand they say, ‘Close your border, don’t let anyone through,’” Mr. Akdogan said on Monday. “Is it just us that must act with conscience? Why don’t you take them in?”
Siobhán Dowling covers European and German politics for Handelsblatt Global Edition. Gerd Höhler is Handelsblatt’s Greece correspondent. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.