Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday that his country’s borders with Europe were open, as thousands of refugees gathered at the frontier with Greece.
Migrants played a cat-and-mouse game with Greek border patrols throughout the night and into Saturday, with some cutting holes in the fence only to be turned back by tear gas and stun grenades.
Greek authorities also fired tear gas to repulse attempts by the crowd to push through the border.
The move by Turkey to open its border was seen in Greece as a deliberate attempt to pressure European countries, as tensions ratcheted up between Turkey and Syria. More than 55 Turkish troops have been killed since Turkey began sending more troops into rebel held areas of northwest Syria, which are backed by Turkey.
“We will not close the gates to refugees,” Erdogan said in a speech in Istanbul. “The European Union has to keep its promises.”
Under a 2016 deal, Turkey agreed to stem the tide of refugees to Europe in return for financial aid. It has since protested that the EU has failed to honor the agreement.
Erdogan was speaking for the first time after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in air strikes in northwest Syria on Thursday, the largest single loss of life for Turkish forces since their country became involved in Syria in 2016.
The deaths led officials to declare Turkey would not impede refugees seeking to enter Europe.
On Saturday, small groups managed to get across into Greece clandestinely. The vast majority were from Afghanistan, and most were men, although there were also some families with young children. They took shelter during the night in abandoned buildings or small chapels in the Greek countryside before starting to walk towards northern Greek.
Erdogan has frequently threatened to “open the gates” and allow refugees and migrants to head to Europe unless more international support was provided, particularly at times of tension with European countries.
Turkey currently hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and many fleeing war and poverty in Asia, Africa and the Middle East use it as a staging post and transit point to reach Europe, usually through neighboring Greece.