Raziye Akkoc and Matthew Holehouse, Telegraph, February 11, 2016
Turkey is prepared to “open the gates” and allow hundreds of thousands of refugees on its soil into Europe, the country’s president threatened on Thursday, as he denounced the West’s ‘shameful’ contribution to the crisis.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan goaded EU leaders, saying they had not delivered the €3 billion (£2.3 billion) in aid his government was promised in exchange for halting the tide of refugees.
In a combative address in Ankara, he said the Turkish government was being taken for “idiots” by Brussels and insisted he was “proud” of leaked minutes of a high-level meeting with EU leaders, in which he had threatened to flood Europe with refugees.
It came as Nato deployed a taskforce of battleships to the Greek coast to collect intelligence and, for the first time, return any stranded refugee vessels they intercept directly back Turkey. Royal Navy vessels could join the force, the Defence Secretary indicated.
Turkey is struggling to cope with more than 2.5 million refugees on its soil.
Under a now unravelling “dirty deal” organised by the European Union’s leadership and backed by the British government, Mr Erdogan was to be offered €3 billion in aid, in exchange for halting the flow of boats.
Turkey would enact stringent border controls on the west coast in exchange for allowing Turkish citizens to visit EU member states later this year without visa restrictions.
But the cash has been delayed by wrangling among European leaders, and several thousand migrants a day still make the short crossing over the Aegean.
“I am proud of what I said. We have defended the rights of Turkey and the refugees. And we told them: ‘Sorry, we will open the doors and say ‘goodbye’ to the migrants’,” Mr Erdogan said.
He claimed the UN has spent less than half a billion dollars in the crisis, and demanded more countries take in migrants, adding: “Shame on you! Shame on you!”
In recent days, the UN, EU and other organisations have called on Turkey to take in Syrian refugees fleeing Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Russian air strikes on its southern border.
Tens of thousands have fled from Aleppo after Russian war planes continued to bomb Aleppo in support of a regime offensive to capture the Syrian city. Mr Erdogan said his government waspreparing for an exodus of 600,000.
“In the past we have stopped people at the gates to Europe, in Edirne we stopped their buses. This happens once or twice, and then we’ll open the gates and wish them a safe journey, that’s what I said.
He went on: “The €3 billion is not in our budget. Where has it gone?”
“We do not have the word ‘idiot’ written on our foreheads. Don’t think that the planes and the buses are there for nothing. We will show patience up to a point and then we’ll do what’s necessary.”
In a move that will further inflame relations, Greece on Thursday confirmed it wants Turkey declared as a “safe third country” – a move that would allow it to send back asylum seekers picked up in the Aegean.
“No decision has yet been taken” but “it is being looked at”, a source said.
Separately, the UN heaped pressure on central Europe to end its steadfast opposition to taking in refugees.
“It is time for the leadership in xentral Europe to set a strong example and commit to helping families fleeing war and human rights violations, irrespective of their nationality or religion,” the UNHCR’s regional representative for Central Europe, Montserrat Feixas Vih, said.
Nato announced on Thursday that it would send a taskforce comprising boats from Germany, Canada, Greece and Turkey to conduct surveillance and rescue stranded craft off the Turkish coast.
Michael Fallon, the British Defence Secretary, said it was a “thoroughly welcome move” that would “save lives” and “break the gangs”.
“This is a big step forward and we are looking urgently now at what contribution we can make to it,” he said.
He insisted the vessels will return any migrants rescued to Turkish soil, and therefore will not encourage crossings as was feared to be the case on the Mediterranean off Italy.
“This is the first time we will see a group tasked with returning migrants. That hasn’t happened before so that’s quite an important development.”
On Thursday, the father of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose lifeless body washed up on a beach came to emblemise the crisis, was accused in court of having driven the fated boat.
Muwafaka Alabash and Asem Alfrhad, suspected people smugglers, went on trial in Bodrum, Turkey, accused of causing the boy’s death.
Abdullah Kurdi had been “driving the boat” at the time, Emin Haydar, a Syrian survivor of the sinking, told the court.
“The real criminal here, the organiser, is Abdullah Kurdi, who became a hero on television but did not even testify,” said Mr Alfrhad.
Mr Alabash said he had been told before coming to Bodrum to “‘find Abdullah Kurdi, he does the migrant smuggling’. I found him in Bodrum. Everyone knew him. His collected money from his people.”
Mr Kurdi and his family denied the claims, made at the time. The two accused men, who deny the allegations, face 35 years in jail if convicted. The case continues.