An Aegean Alliance

Greece, Turkey, and Migration Cooperation

A migrant carries a child during a protest as they want to be allowed to continue their journey to Greece or Bulgaria, outside the Sarayici oil wrestling arena in Edirne, Turkey, September 21, 2015. Alexandros Avramidis / Reuters

Greece and Turkey are two neighbors best known for their antagonism. A history of military skirmishes, population exchanges, and deeply divergent cultural and religious views wedge the two apart. Over the last six months, however, Greece and Turkey have tacitly colluded to deliver a staggering load of human cargo to Western Europe. The refugee crisis is, in many ways, a phenomenon propelled by choices made in Athens and Ankara. 

The Hellenic Coast Guard was accused of brutalizing refugees and pushing them back into Turkish waters, rather than processing them according to European Union regulations only last summer. Meanwhile, the Turkish Coast Guard Command, which signed a memorandum of understanding to share intelligence and training less than two years ago, has virtually stopped arresting smugglers

Four major factors help explain the transformation that made Greece and Turkey go from frontline warriors—coordinating on land and sea to lock out the rest of the world—to laissez-faire observers of the migrant crisis: Syriza’s ascendance to power liberalized Greece’s immigration policy, EU-enforced austerity politics stoked Greek frustration toward other member-states, flagging efforts by Turkish authorities to crack down on smugglers overwhelmed Greek authorities, and Turkey’s long-term strategy to force Europe to do more for Muslim communities have all played significant roles in both countries’ reluctance to stem the flow of refugees along Europe’s borders. If both nations were not hostile toward what they view as EU arrogance, these erstwhile rivals on the Aegean might still be policing their coasts. 


Syriza’s ascendance to power last January signaled the electorate’s rejection austerity politics. Before the election, immigration policy was not a major issue. European parliamentarian and Syriza party member Dimitrios Papadimoulis said that Greece would seek a “common European immigration policy with obligations and rights” and also more money from the European Union for border security. During the party’s first month in power, however, Syriza Deputy Immigration Minister Tasia Christodoulopoulou announced that the government would

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