AMMAN, Jordan — Turkey and Greece are trading blame following the deaths of Syrian refugees trying to flee to Europe, but some observers believe Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is weaponizing the Syrian refugee humanitarian crisis.

A 6-year-old Syrian boy drowned when a boat full of refugees heading to a Greek island capsized March 2, as thousands of migrants, encouraged by Turkey, attempt to push through Greece’s land and sea borders. Elsewhere, a Syrian man trying to enter Europe illegally was shot and killed near Turkey’s land border with Greece.

“Of course, we sympathize with the Syrians, whether displaced inside the country, others who are refugees in neighboring countries, those who lost their lives or are risking their lives,” Father Emanuel Youkhana told Catholic News Service by phone from northern Iraq.

Youkhana, a priest, or archimandrite, of the Assyrian Church of the East, runs Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, which helps Syrians recently displaced by the Turkish military invasion in northeastern Syria and fighting in their homeland, as well as Iraqis uprooted by Islamic State militants.

“What is tricky is that they (Syrian refugees) are being used as a tool. It’s a very clear game by Erdogan. Of the refugees we are seeing on TV trying to reach Greece, the majority of them are not Syrians, but Afghans, Iraqis, etc. Erdogan claims Syrian refugees, but he is pushing and facilitating even for non-Syrians to flee to Greece. It is really terrible,” Youkhana said.

Erdogan ordered Turkey’s gates to Europe, specifically Greece, opened to refugees and migrants until the European Union meets his demand to add some $3.5 billion in funding for the refugees’ stay in Turkey, in addition to the approximately $6 billion Turkey has already received. About 12,500 migrants are estimated to be waiting on the Turkish side of the Greek border.

The action violates a deal Turkey struck with the EU to close its borders following the 1 million migrants who flooded into Europe from Turkey during the 2015-16 migrant crisis. The swell has strained European security and welfare systems and increased support for far-right political parties.

Josep Borrell, European Union foreign policy chief, and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, met with Erdogan and other top officials March 4, promising an additional $189 million in aid for vulnerable groups in Syria.

Borrell said the EU recognized the “difficult situation Turkey is facing” but that Turkey’s decision to open the way for migrants could “only make the situation worse.”

Youkhana questioned the timing and motives behind the border decision.

“How could Erdogan discover overnight that he is overwhelmed with refugees? Why, two weeks earlier, there was no such burden on Syrian refugees and others in Turkey to cross the borders into Europe?” he asked. “The Turkish government is facilitating the movement by providing buses, while border patrol turns a blind eye.”

Since December 2019, nearly a million Syrians have been internally displaced by a Syrian government offensive, backed by Russian warplanes, to retake the Turkish-supported rebel and militant-controlled territory in Idlib province.

“It’s one of the biggest humanitarian crises since the beginning of Syria’s war in March 2011. It’s under siege by the Syrian regime because of the jihadists and rebels which fled there from other parts of Syria,” Andrea Avveduto, communications chief for Pro Terra Sancta, told CNS. Pro Terra Sancta, based in Jerusalem and Milan, supports the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, which includes Franciscans in Syria.

“More than 10 Syrian children died from the freezing temperatures. A lot of people continue to die. The situation is very dramatic, really terrible,” Avveduto said, after speaking with two Franciscan monks ministering in Idlib province.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians, many women and children, are trapped in northwestern Syria with little food or adequate shelter for sub-zero temperatures. Some are escaping into Turkey, which already shelters some 3.6 million Syrians. Erdogan has threatened to send “millions” more to Europe.

Greece also has accused Turkey of engineering a refugee “invasion” of its land and sea borders, calling Erdogan a “migrant trafficker” as thousands of refugees continue to surge toward its borders.

“This is no longer a refugee problem,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “It is a blatant attempt by Turkey to use desperate people to promote its geopolitical agenda.”

Youkhana and other observers view Turkey’s actions as trying “to blackmail Europe for funding or to put political pressure on Syria and Russia for what is happening in Idlib because of its failure to isolate and dismantle radical movements there. Instead, the Turkish leader supported them with weapons,” the priest said.

Pope Francis expressed his concern and prayers for the thousands of refugees fleeing from war. “I am saddened at the news of so many displaced people, many men, women and children driven away because of war, so many migrants seeking refuge in the world, and help,” the pope said March 1.

While not specifying a location, he did add that “the situation has become much stronger” in recent days.

Meanwhile, Jesuit Refugee Service in Italy has called for the relocation of migrants in Greece and the activation of humanitarian visas for Syrian refugees. It also called for a humanitarian corridor “for the Syrians fleeing the bombs.”

The U.S. and the United Nations are calling for an immediate cease-fire and for more border areas to be opened between Turkey and Syria to deliver aid and medicine.

Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.