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Erdogan to EU: Turkey cannot handle new Syria refugee flow by itself

Tens of thousands of Syrians have fled towards Turkish border amid heightened government and Russian bombardment of Idlib region since 16 December
Syrian children ride in back of truck on Sunday as part of convoy of people from Idlib province fleeing bombardment by government and its allies (AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday warned Europe that Turkey by itself cannot handle a new wave of Syrian refugees fleeing increased bombardment in the northwestern Idlib province.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have fled towards the Turkish border amid heightened government and Russian bombardment of the Maaret al-Numan region since 16 December.

Idlib hosts about three million people, including many displaced by violence in other parts of Syria. Damascus has repeatedly vowed to take back control of the province.

"Turkey cannot handle a new refugee wave from Syria," Erdogan said, adding that more than 80,000 people from Idlib had fled to areas near the Turkish border.

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If the flow increases, "Turkey will not carry this migration burden alone", he added. "The negative effects of this pressure on us will be an issue felt by all European countries, especially Greece," he warned.

Europe would once again experience the same scenes before the Turkey-European Union migration deal signed in 2016, Erdogan said - a reference to the continent's worst refugee crisis since World War II, when in 2015 more than a million fled to Europe.

As part of the agreement, the EU promised Ankara $6.6bn in exchange for stronger controls on refugees leaving its territory for Europe.

Erdogan has previously claimed that not all of that money arrived and has warned that Turkey could be forced to open the doors to Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe.

"The flow of funds should be sped up and the amount of funding should be increased," Faruk Kaymakci, a deputy Turkish minister of foreign affairs, said last week. Hosting the Syrian refugees will cost Turkey about $40bn in total, he added.

Turkish officials say Turkey is host to about five million refugees, among which 3.7 million are Syrians.

Turkey is also seeking international support for its plans to settle about 1 million of the Syrians in part of northeast Syria that its forces and their Syrian rebel allies seized from the Kurdish YPG militia in a cross-border incursion in October, Reuters said.

Ankara has received little public backing for the proposal and has repeatedly slammed its allies for not supporting its plans. Turkey's offensive was also met with condemnation from allies, including the US and European countries.

"We call on European countries to use their energy to stop the massacre in Idlib, rather than trying to corner Turkey for the legitimate steps it took in Syria," Erdogan said on Sunday, referring to the three military operations Turkey has carried out there.

Despite being on opposing sides of the Syrian civil war, Turkey and Russia have worked closely to resolve the conflict. Erdogan also said a Turkish delegation would go to Moscow on Monday for talks with their counterparts as part of Turkey's efforts to end the attacks in Idlib.