AFP / EDIRNE, Turkey - Several hundred migrants who were blocked by police in northwest Turkey from crossing a land border to Greece this week drew a few kilometers closer to their destination Saturday after the authorities briefly opened the route.
There were jubilant scenes as the crowd of mostly Syrian refugees who have been camping at the side of the road outside the city of Edirne for four days, began to advance towards the border. Chanting and whistling, faces wreathed in smiles, the refugees surged forward after the riot police that stood between them and the last leg of their journey to the EU turned on their heels and led the group down the road.
Many parents carried children in their arms or riding on their shoulders. "We will walk peacefully, we don't want to fight," Mohammed, one of the refugees' representatives told AFP by telephone as they set off. "Let us in!" read a slogan scrawled on one refugee's T-shirt in an appeal directed at European leaders.
But less than two hours after their dash to the border began it was abruptly halted at the entrance to Edirne, where police with riot shields and helmets again fanned out across the road. Situated around 10 kilometers (six miles) from the Greek border and 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the Bulgarian frontier, Edirne has become a new rallying point for migrants trying to reach Europe.
Encouraged by the #Crossingnomore social media campaign, which called for migrants to be allowed to travel safely overland to Greece rather than risk their lives at sea, up to 1,000 refugees flocked to the city earlier this week. But on Tuesday police sealed off the main road leading to the city of 170,000 from the east and closed off the bus station, preventing migrants arriving from other Turkish cities by bus from continuing their journey westwards.
On Wednesday, provincial governor Dursun Ali Şahin had warned the migrants would be sent back to refugee camps in southern Turkey. But there was no sign of any attempt to forcibly remove them. On Friday, he appealed for Europe to show more solidarity with those fleeing conflict and misery in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. "If a country issues an invitation to the refugees, we will send them on our own planes and buses. But no country has pledged to accept them," he lamented.
Many of the refugees seeking to leave Turkey have been living in the country for months, sometimes years, after fleeing the bloody civil war in Syria across the two countries' 911-kilometre border. Turkey has taken in an estimated two million Syrians, around 260,000 of whom live in refugee camps.
On a visit to Ankara Friday the foreign minister of Luxembourg, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, said the bloc was preparing a "substantial" aid package for Turkey to help it meet the refugees' needs. "It's not that we want to buy Turkey off for blocking the route to those who want to come to Europe," Jean Asselborn said. "It's about providing support on the one hand, and, on the other hand, avoiding the anarchy we're seeing at borders where asylum seekers are entering."
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