Turkey’s end of the refugee bargain

Turkey will endeavour to keep to its side of the bargain, but is facing substantial pressure both military and humanitarian

If anyone expects the refugee exodus from the Turkish shores into Europe to end this summer, they should think again. While the refugee crisis in Europe has had a surprisingly re-invigorating effect on the Turkish-European ties, and produced a well-defined Joint Action Plan in November 2015, the inflow of those fleeing warzones and poverty in the Muslim world will likely continue – drop but continue-well into 2016.

And that is not due to unwillingness on the part of Turkey or the European Union to stem the flow of migrants into Europe. Despite an increasingly shrill rhetoric on Western attitudes towards refugees, Turkish leaders indicate that they intend to live up to their end of the bargain. For President Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) the refugee issue meant a serendipitous return into the European community – not only offering financial incentives to relieve Turkey’s heavy burden but also promising to “re-energize” the accession process. Coming after a period of relative international loneliness and a sense of desperation regarding the course of events in Syria, this is very welcome. While much criticised by Turkey’s pro-European intelligentsia for its disregard for Turkey’s deteriorating human rights record, the deal offers Erdoğan an irresistible spot – and a new legitimacy – at the European table.

But there are other reasons – technical and political – to be less hopeful about halting the refugee inflow. For starters, the overall premise of the Joint Action Plan between Turkey and the European Union is not to put a complete stop, with the understanding that it is not attainable, but to maximise the number of refugees staying in Turkey, support them, and create an “orderly” – yet diminished – flow of refugees into Europe.  In addition to the €3 billion in aid to be delivered to Turkey, the ultimate deal will also involve a controlled resettlement of refugees into Europe in more modest numbers than the current flow.

As of January 2016, Turkey is hosting roughly 2.7 million refugees, of which just over 2.5 million are Syrians fleeing the war. Turkey has overhauled its immigration process since the beginning of Syrian war, promoting an “open door” policy, building camps, and giving Syrians temporary protection status (formal refugee status is only given to those coming from Western nations). A new law on foreigners and international protection came into force in April 2014 and with that, the newly-formed Directorate General of Migration, underneath the Ministry of Interior, became the governmental body responsible for refugees and related issues.

Yet the Syrian war keeps producing more and more refugees beyond Turkey’s existing capacity. Roughly 10 percent of Syrians living in Turkey reside in government-run camps (24 camps across Turkey) and the management of the Syrian refugee crisis is largely in the hands of Turkish state organisations.

The temporary protection status provides Syrians with access to a variety of public services, education and healthcare. In January 2016, Turkey also announced its decision to provide Syrian nationals access to labour markets – an idea long supported by the European Union – and announced further measures to provide access to education for Syrian children. (Currently, 350,000 Syrians attend schools in Turkey but still an alarming number, 400,000, remain unschooled)

Turkey’s initial estimates at the beginning of the Syrian war were roughly 100,000 refugees, a quick regime change in Damascus and a mass return to Syria. Although the number and the scale of the refugee issue far exceeded Turkey’s earlier expectations and political calculus about the Syrian equation, AKP government’s handling of the issue has been a source of national pride domestically.

But not all refugees that come to Europe via Turkey are Syrians and not all Syrians live in camps. One of the complexities of the Syrian conflict has been the messy entanglement of Turkey’s refugee issue with security concerns, its explosive Kurdish issue (domestically and across the borders in Syria), and the fight with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. While law enforcement activity to curb illegal crossings from the Turkish cost into the Aegean has been a key feature of the Joint Action Plan with the EU, Turkish security forces are spread out thin fighting a two-pronged war against the outlawed PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and ISIS, which currently controls 98 km of Turkey’s border with Syria.

Still, there has been a noticeable crackdown on illegal migrant activity, which explains the decline in illegal crossings across the border. According to Turkish officials, as noted in a 10 February 2016 European Commission report on the implementation of the Joint Action Plan, Turkish law enforcement (coast guard, police, gendarmerie) have apprehended or arrested 230 human smugglers between 1 January and 15 January. Arrests of human smugglers or capture of illegal refugees on route to Greek islands often make the news in Turkey these days. According Turkish authorities, all in all 3,700 smugglers have been arrested in 2015 – mostly in the Aegean.

For many European officials, the numbers of human smugglers arrested and their sentences are not enough, raising fears of another mass exodus once the weather gets better. But the overstretching of Turkey’s security apparatus and the geographic reality of the Aegean – with a meandering coastline and dozens of Greek islands within easy reach – make the task a daunting one.

Sure enough, the numbers are declining, but not in the eye-popping figures that Europeans would like to see. Despite the winter conditions, roughly 16,000 immigrants arrived in Greece per week. Monthly accounts of immigrant crossings show a sharp decline for January 2016 – but it is hard to say how much of it has to do with new laws and regulations and how much due to weather conditions.  The real test for the efficacy of the JAP will come in the summer of 2016.

A major emphasis of the Joint Action Plan, as well as of the Turkish-German bilateral dialogue, is the “readmission” process. Readmission has become the new buzzword in European policy circles suggesting, by definition, a quick solution to the crisis. The idea is for Europe to be able to send refugees back to Turkey – particularly non-Syrians such as soaring number of refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Morocco, Iran and Iraq who are seen as economic migrants – and for Turkey to send them back to the host country. Turkey is expected to sign a readmission agreement with the European Commission this year and, in parallel, complete similar deals with countries that are the source of refugee crisis.

While the Turkish-EU readmission agreement is a pawn in the larger Turkish-European power game – which includes payments to Turkey and the opening of chapters in the accession process – readmission with Greece is technically in place. Athens has already declared Turkey a “safe country” and a readmission process, still with meagre numbers, has started. There already is a readmission center in Dikili, a popular holiday destination and now a refugee hub on the Aegean cost of Turkey, and more centres are set to open.

Technically, this could save Europe a good deal of headache if Greece and Turkey were able to facilitate a swift readmission process. But readmission requires a lengthy legal procedure, requiring relatively long processing times and harmoniously functioning law enforcement on both sides of the Aegean – therefore may not turn out to be the panacea that Europe needs. If the process reached meaningful numbers, the theory goes, this would ultimately start deterring those wanting to pursue a similar path. “The plan is not bad, but it needs a jolt to start functioning,” a senior European diplomat mentioned recently, “We are heartened by the sudden increase in the readmission cases over the last few days from Greece.”

But does Turkey ultimately want this deal to work given that it would have to accept large numbers of refugees back and risk becoming a buffer zone for Europe? There are reasons why the deal is also attractive to Ankara. The AKP government had long prided itself on opening up to the Middle East with free travel, closer economic ties, and an omnipresent discourse on Islamic solidarity. But that was when the Middle East held more promise than it does today. From Libya to Syria and Iraq, key Middle Eastern states – once AKP allies – look ungovernable, and so close relations with them no longer has the political cachet it once did. Despite all the problems in the relationship, Europe once again looks like a very valuable strategic partner.

As part of its agreement with Europe, Turkey is now imposing visa restrictions to citizens of Libya, Lebanon, and lately Syria and Iraq. While technically the “open-door” policy continues, in reality, Turkey is no longer eager to continue to receive tens of thousands of Syrians. There is an uncomfortable acceptance that many will stay behind to continue their lives in Turkey and that the political solution taking place around the Russian-American ceasefire may not produce an outcome favorable to Ankara. A long-held political desire of Erdoğan and the AKP government had been a declaration of no-fly zone on its southern borders so refugees can at least return there – with Turkey providing contractors, infrastructure and key services.

While the idea of a safe zone looks impossible with a fully-fledged, multi-sided battleground right up to the Turkish border, Turkey has not yet opened its borders for the new wave of refugees coming from Aleppo. With the advance of Syrian military forces and Russian airpower, there was a new wave of refugees in February towards Turkey and tens of thousands of people now live across from the Turkish border in Kilis. But instead of opening the border as it had done in the past, Ankara and Turkish NGOs are now organising its aid efforts on the other side of the Syrian border, effectively trying to create a de facto safe zone.

The zone isn’t necessarily safe and its depth hardly exceeds a few kilometers, with the nearby town of Azaz being a focal point of contest between the Kurdish forces and Turkey-backed groups.  But the model does provide a novel – albeit controversial – idea in dealing with the refugee crisis.

All in all, Turkey and Europe now understand that they are in this together. Because of the political and financial burdens involved, Ankara needs Europe and vice versa.

While the crisis does provide Turkish leader Erdoğan with an asymmetrical bargaining power, as evidenced in a recently leaked conversation allegedly taking place between Erdoğan and Jean Claude Juncker on refugees, this essentially remains a symbiotic relationship. There are grudges, grievances and mistrusts galore, but also immense mutual benefits to both sides. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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