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Syrian refugees head towards Europe after Turkey opens borders

Ankara orders security officials to let Syrians cross from Syria and into Europe after Assad forces killed Turkish soldiers
NGO members help refugees disembark from a dinghy as it lands ashore the Greek island of Lesbos on 28 February 2020 (AFP)

Scores of Syrian refugees in Turkey have begun heading to the country's borders with Bulgaria and Greece following Ankara's sudden decision on Thursday to no longer stop refugees heading to Europe.

Turkey opened both its border with Syria's Idlib province and with the two European Union countries to enable refugees to pass through its territory toward the EU border. 

Earlier on Friday, groups of Syrians and refugees from other countries landed on a Greek island after boarding rubber dinghies from Turkey the night before following the Turkish announcement.

Greek security officials on Friday told AFP that at least 300 people had been spotted on the Turkish side of its border in the northeastern Evros region and said it would boost border patrols after Turkey's announcement.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said on Friday the country had also tightened its border controls after refugees began heading to its frontier. 

Meanwhile, images posted online showed Turkish refugee groups preparing buses in Istanbul for refugees intending to go to Europe, with hundreds already walking towards Turkey's land borders with Bulgaria and Greece. 

Refugees from northwestern Syria had also begun crossing into Turkey, from where they are expected to head to the Turkish border with Europe. 

Ankara's decision to open its borders came after a Syrian government air strike in northwestern Syria killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers on Thursday. 

A Turkish official confirmed to Middle East Eye on Thursday night that Turkey would open its southwestern border with Syria for 72 hours to grant free passage to Europe to Syrians fleeing the pro-government assault. 

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The UN refugee agency UNHCR, however, told Reuters on Friday that it had not been informed of any changes in Turkey's policy for Syrian refugees. 

A senior Turkish official said on Thursday that Syrian refugees heading towards Europe would not be stopped either on land or by sea.

Turkey, already home to 3.6 million Syrians, had previously indicated that it would not host more people arriving in the country as violence intensifies in northwestern Syria. 

Refugees crammed in Greek camps

Greece, meanwhile, hosts thousands of refugees stranded in the country, especially on islands where migrant camps are stretched beyond capacity. 

More than 38,000 people are crowded into camps on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos, more than six times the official capacity of just 6,200. 

The conservative government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, that came to power in July, has failed to persuade Greek island authorities to create new camp facilities.

Camps on the Greek mainland are also full, and local authorities there also oppose efforts to relocate additional asylum seekers.