Bulgaria floods River Evros as Greece prepares for Turkey-backed migrant push

Greece and Bulgaria are taking extreme measures on the border with Turkey due to fears that Turkish authorities plan to help migrants force their way into Europe, Greek media reported.

At Greece’s request, the authorities in Bulgaria opened a dam on Monday to intentionally flood the River Evros, which forms a natural boundary with Turkey, said the Greek Reporter.

Meanwhile, Greek security forces are on standby at the border, where authorities suspect Turkish officials could assist undocumented migrants in a mass push across the border, Greek daily Kathimerini reported.

Turkey has told its coastguard to resume patrols to stop migrants from crossing to Greek islands in the Aegean Sea since Turkish authorities announced on Feb. 27 they would grant free passage to migrants, but thousands are still gathering on the land border hoping to cross to Europe.

Reports say they have arrived there with encouragement and assistance from Turkish authorities. Migrants on the border told the Asia Times they had been brought on buses in an organised manner overseen by Turkish police and gendarmerie. They said Turkish police had then prevented them leaving the border area after Greek security forces prevented them from crossing.

The Greek reports this week said movements on the Turkish side of the border had raised fears of a mass push toward Europe after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan returned empty-handed from Brussels on Monday, where he had hoped to secure a new migration deal in talks with European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The reports said a path had been cut along the banks of the River Evros and large tree trunks placed there, possibly for migrants to use as makeshift rafts to cross the river.

The preparations have raised fears that Turkey is preparing to transport large numbers of migrants and help them push their way into Greece as they say Turkish police did at the Kastanies border crossing to Turkey’s Pazarkule late last month.

Greece has ramped up its border security with army units and has even enlisted civilians to patrol searching for undocumented migrants and refugees, for whom it temporarily suspended asylum applications. Slovenia, Poland and Austria also sent police and special forces to help bolster the border defences after several skirmishes between migrants and Greek security forces in the buffer zone.

The Greek forces have been told to exercise caution to avoid a repeat of a dispute sparked in 2018 when Turkish authorities arrested two Greek soldiers who had accidentally crossed the border, holding them in detention for five months, Kathimerini said.

Similar arrests or a new mass skirmish on Greece’s border could be viewed by Turkey as providing Erdoğan with leverage to use in his upcoming meeting with EU leaders to discuss migration at a summit in Turkey next week.

Erdoğan left Brussels on Monday without reaching a deal and did not make any statement to the press, but the Turkish president has made clear his dissatisfaction with the current migration deal which Turkey and the EU signed to curb migration in 2016 and which promised Turkey 6 billion euros and other benefits.

The Turkish president has complained that Turkey is yet to receive the full sum promised in the deal, and the other benefits, including visa-free travel in Europe for Turks, have not materialised.

Erdoğan brought the visa issue and the possibility of updating the customs union agreement up at Monday’s meeting, where he wished to tie a new migration deal in with Turkey’s broader relations with the European bloc, said Abdulkadir Selvi, a columnist known for his close ties to Turkey’s ruling party.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has said he hopes to reach a new agreement on migration with the European Union before the European Council summit on March 26.

"If we reach an agreement by March 26 when there will be an EU leaders' summit, this issue will come on to the agenda of this meeting," he said.