As government troops tighten the noose on Syria’s Idlib province, hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have been driven from their homes. For the displaced masses, tough choices lie ahead. The northbound road towards Turkey may be their only hope of escape – but targeted daily by Syria’s air force, it’s a gauntlet few will want to run.

A New Refugee Crisis Could Break The Whole System

Beyond that, the picture brightens little. Across the frontier into Turkey – whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has closed the border fearing the weight of arrivals – and then, somehow, on to Europe and the hope of a better life. But there awaits only dangerous, disease-ridden refugee camps. These makeshift settlements, situated mostly on tiny spits of land off the Greek coast, are already at breaking point. Should 2020 mark another year of mass migration, there are fears that the system could collapse altogether.

Erdogan has made little secret of the crisis awaiting Europe as Syria’s eight-year civil war draws to a bloody close. Sharing a border with the conflict ridden country, Turkey has absorbed most of those fleeing the violence. Almost four million – the planet’s largest refugee contingent – now reside within Turkish borders. His nation can accommodate no more, Erdogan said pointedly last month.

Erdogan: Turkey Will Not Bear The ‘Migrant Burden’ Alone

If conditions in Idlib continue to deteriorate, Turkey will not shoulder the new “migrant burden” alone, the firebrand leader made clear. “All European countries”, willingly or not, will have to share the weight, Erdogan warned. 

And a great weight it may be. In the final days of December, some 235,000 locals were forced to abandon their homes as Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces approached. Idlib – currently held by a mix of rebels and jihadistsis the only remaining region to oppose Assad’s totalitarian rule. Estimates put the province’s population at around 3 million, although in the south, where state troops first advanced, settlements are now “almost empty,” according to UN observers.

2015 Refugee Crisis All Over Again?

The numbers portend a refugee catastrophe on the scale of 2015’s. That year, more than a million people entered Europe, leaving behind war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. In 2016, the EU brokered a deal with Erdogan to address the issue, specifically allotting €6 billion in return for Turkish efforts to stem the flow of migrants moving westward through Turkey. 

But the accord is faltering. Leaked EU documents suggest some 70,000 individuals crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey in 2019, entering Europe through the smattering of Greek islands along the coast. Reports even point to Turkish complicity in the movement, with government patrol boats allegedly letting asylum seeker vessels pass without challenge. 

The islands they land on are desperately overcrowded. At least 40,000 refugees currently occupy the ramshackle camps, some of which are ten-times over their official capacity. Conditions are deplorable. Medical treatment is often hard to come by, food and water scarce, and sanitation poor. 

Individuals can remain in the camps for years, trapped in an asylum seeking limbo. Those lucky enough to have their applications approved will likely be transported to mainland Greece. Some stay, but many set their hopes on settling in central and western Europe, soliciting people smugglers to move them through the Balkans into Austria and Germany.   

Europe’s Point-Of-View Vs. Turkey’s Point-Of-View

For European leaders battling a rising tide of populist nationalism, these arrivals pose deep political problems. Germany’s Angela Merkel – whose decision to welcome migrants in 2015 elicited a vicious voter backlash – will hope to head off the issue this month, reports suggest, when she meets Erdogan in Turkey. His nation must honour the EU’s deal, she’ll likely demand, but he will be in no hurry to agree.

Having endured a bruising year of electoral defeat, Ankara’s main man faces his own hefty share of political problems. Public sentiment appears to be shifting against the nation’s huge migrant contingent, forcing Erdogan to adopt an ever harder line. Turkey’s Syrian refugees will be repatriated to their country’s northeast, his government has intimated, occupying a band of land recently conquered by Turkish forces. 

Whether this “safe zone” really is fit for mass resettlement, few can say for sure. And what of the new migrant tide scrambling from blood-soaked Idlib? Where they will end up -Turkey, the Greek islands, mainland Europe – remains unclear. 

As a fresh refugee crisis takes shape, uncertainty abounds. One thing is clear, however: 2020 threatens to be a year of untold migrant misery.   

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