Every hour in Pazarkule, the church bells told the migrants how close they were to Europe; and the shots told them they weren’t going to get in. On the Turkish-Greek border, where thousands are still waiting to cross, those who tried were repelled by tear gas and rubber bullets. And all day on Wednesday, as the ambulance sirens came and went, rumours spread of much worse, too: one dead and five injured trying to make it into Greece.
A hospital official later confirmed the casualties. The governor of the Turkish border province, Edirne, accused the Greek police of using live ammunition; a Greek government spokesperson flatly denied it, accusing Turkey of ‘fake news’. A video circulated, showing a group of refugees hurrying through a field, carrying a man in a blanket, and the tensions rose higher still.
The migrants’ frustration isn’t directed only at the Greek police. Sharukh, a 22-year-old from Afghanistan, abandoned his job as a baker in Istanbul to get to Pazarkule, expecting to be able to cross into Europe. He had seen, on Facebook threads and WhatsApp groups, that the border was open. He took a four-hour taxi ride then walked for another four hours. ‘We realised as soon as we got here,’ he told me, ‘it was a lie!’ Unable to afford the return fare, he plans to stay, and wait, in Pazarkule.
Others cited news broadcasts misleadingly claiming that ‘the doors to Europe’ had been ‘opened to refugees’. Some were bussed to the border for free, others were given directions by local police, and all were encouraged. One Iranian refugee showed me the wound on his shin where he’d been hit by a rubber bullet. Moments before, he said, Turkish soldiers had shouted ‘Go, go, continue!’ and waved his group towards the border.
Few in Turkey, though, seem willing to accept responsibility. ‘If hundreds of thousands of civilians are on Europe’s doorstep,’ President Erdoğan said earlier this week, ‘this is for a reason. The EU fails to keep its promises.’ This isn’t a view limited to government. In central Edirne, an opposition town, a local politician told me that Turkey has done its part for the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the country, and the EU should take those at the border.
Whether any of this works for Erdoğan – using refugees on Turkey’s western frontier for geopolitical gains in the country’s east – is another question. According to the Turkish Interior Ministry, there are more than 130,000 refugees at the border with Greece; the UN estimate at the weekend was one-tenth of that. At Edirne bus station – where hundreds are camped on the lawn – an official told me that the numbers of arrivals have dropped considerably.
Many, too, are now trying to leave. One Iranian family, sleeping by the ticket offices, said they had crossed into Greece, only for the police to take their clothes, money and passports, and send them back into Turkey in their underwear. Humiliated and beaten, they were saving up the money to head home to Istanbul.
But many others are planning to stay at the border. As the sun went down, I asked Muhammad – a Palestinian who’s been in Turkey for 11 years – who he blamed for all that has happened. ‘The other refugees,’ he said. ‘They push, they throw stones. If the authorities say “stay”, we should stay and wait. Until they decide to open it.’ He’d been in Pazarkule for a week. The day before, the EU announced it would be spending €350 million to strengthen its external border.