ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Hundreds of migrants in Turkey started arriving on the borders with Greece and Bulgaria on Friday after a senior Turkish official said Ankara would no longer abide by a 2016 EU deal and stop refugees from reaching Europe.
The migrants, some carrying small children and carrier bags, trekked along roads out of Istanbul and through fields, in scenes reminiscent of the 2015 refugee crisis, when more than a million people fleeing wars and poverty sought asylum in Europe.
Some wore face masks, in an apparent attempt to guard against the coronavirus outbreak now sweeping the world and adding to the concerns of hard-pressed European authorities.
Greece and Bulgaria, both European Union member states, vowed not to admit the migrants. Greek police used smoke grenades at one border crossing, while Bulgaria sent an extra 1,000 troops to its border with Turkey.
“There is no work (here in Turkey),” said Muhammed Abdullah, a 25-year-old Syrian queuing in Istanbul to board a bus bound for the Greek border.
“Turkey is not nice at all, Europe is nicer,” he said, adding that he wanted to go to Germany.
But at the Pazarkule border post with Greece, scores of migrants faced barbed wire fences and smoke grenades. Some stuck in the no-man’s land between the two countries tried to return to the Turkish side to escape the smoke, only to be turned back by the authorities there.
“There are many problems here (in Turkey). We want the Turkish and European governments to open this gate,” said Hamid Muhammed, who was holding a young girl at the Greek border.
Some young men, with nothing else to do, kicked a football around. Women in headscarves wept in desperation.
Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Moroccans were among the migrants arriving at the border crossings with Greece and Bulgaria, about 200 km (125 miles) west of Istanbul, Turkey’s pro-government Demiroren news agency said.
“We heard about (Turkey’s decision) on the television,” said migrant Sahin Nebizade, a 16-year-old Afghan, one of a group of migrants packed into one of three taxis that were parked on a highway on the outskirts of Istanbul.
“We’ve been living in Istanbul. We want to go to Edirne and then on to Greece,” he said in fluent Turkish, before the taxis headed for the northwestern province of Edirne.
Further south, on Turkey’s Aegean coast, Turkish broadcasters showed two dozen people, including women and children, aboard a rubber dinghy boat, reportedly bound for the Greek island of Lesbos.
Turkey’s decision to make good on long-standing threats by President Tayyip Erdogan to “open the gates” to Europe came after 33 Turkish troops were killed in an air strike by Syrian government forces in Syria’s northwestern Idlib region.
Some one million civilians have been displaced in Syria near Turkey since December as Russian-backed Syrian government forces seized territory from Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, creating the worst humanitarian crisis in the nine-year war.
Turkey already hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle any more.
The EU said on Friday it had received no official word from Ankara that it had suspended the 2016 deal, under which Brussels sends billions of euros in aid in return for Turkey stemming the migrant flow to Europe.
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Gareth Jones