Wilful blindness: How the EU should revise its refugee deal with Turkey

The EU needs to acknowledge that the deal with Turkey is not working as envisioned in 2016.  

ECFR Alumni · Policy Fellow
Ggia CC BY-SA

In March 2016, EU and Turkish leaders outlined an agreement under which Turkey was expected to prevent migration from Turkey to Greece. In return, Turkey would receive increased financial support, as it hosted more than 4 million refugees, including 3.7 million Syrians. The deal also included a mechanism that would resettle one vulnerable Syrian refugee in the European Union for every migrant Greece returned to Turkey. Furthermore, both parties agreed to “re-energise” Turkey’s EU accession process.

The arrangement fulfilled the EU’s key goal: a decline in migration from Turkey to Greece. In the period immediately after the implementation of the agreement, such migration decreased considerably. But, in combination with the closure of access to other EU states and the Balkans, Greece was left alone with continuous arrivals on its islands. The sides could not implement the logic of the deal – to push refugees in Greece back to Turkey – as those who arrived in Greece had a right to claim asylum there and the international principle of non-refoulement prohibits the deportation of refugees. By late 2019, Greece had deported only 2,000 people to Turkey. As the EU and Greek authorities were slow to process asylum applications, inhumane conditions in overcrowded refugee camps became the new normal in Greece.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent claims that Turkey may send “millions” of refugees to Europe is absurd political propaganda. Only the most desperate refugees – most of them Afghans and other non-Syrians, who find it very difficult to obtain refugee status in Turkey – might be willing to follow such calls and find themselves trapped in a precarious situation near the EU’s border. The EU now has a twofold responsibility to urgently address both the situation on the Greek islands and that faced by refugees in Turkey. This should involve the revision of the bloc’s agreement with Turkey.

Firstly, the EU must end the unsustainable situation on the islands. The EU has a right to protect its borders, but a response to the current crisis that is based exclusively on military means – as seen in the deployment of navy warships to push back small boats carrying refugees, as well as the use of life-threatening violence at the border – is deeply flawed. Yet the European Commission and member states have initially focused on reinforcing Greek border protection, as well as the capacity of the Turkish navy.

Despite the Greek government’s recent attempts to restrict the right to asylum, the EU is obliged to prevent acts of aggression against refugees and reinforce its commitment to international law, including the 1951 Refugee Convention. An effective response to the crisis on the Greek islands is long overdue: 42,000 people are stuck in “hotspots” that the authorities originally created to identify and register new arrivals before quickly processing their asylum applications and relocating them to other EU member states. The EU needs to immediately resettle the most vulnerable people in these facilities, including thousands of unaccompanied minors and those who are critically ill. The German government has signalled that it is prepared to receive 1,500 vulnerable people and asked for help in this from a coalition of willing EU member states. And there have been signs that Germany will receive such help from several countries, including France, Portugal, and Finland.

The sides should abandon the deal’s malfunctioning logic of deportation and resettlement

Greece’s fellow member states have left the country alone within the framework of the EU-Turkey deal and done nothing to improve the poor conditions refugees and migrants live in – perhaps reasoning that these circumstances will deter others from making the journey. This needs to change. European states should take substantive steps towards reforming the European asylum system so that it guarantees the basic rights of refugees and migrants. While they should restart the debate about fairly sharing responsibility for hosting refugees and migrants between member states, those that are ready to accept refugees need to act quickly in the face of the current crisis.

Secondly, the EU needs to acknowledge that the arrangement with Turkey is not working as envisioned in 2016 and needs to be revised. Since the failed coup attempt against Erdogan in summer 2016 and his unprecedented campaign against the political opposition in Turkey, European-Turkish relations have been strained, and accession talks have become a very distant prospect. Therefore, the EU-Turkey deal should now exclusively focus on support for refugees and their protection in Turkey. The EU’s “facility” for refugees in Turkey, its financial package, is the only part of the deal that has worked: the EU had disbursed almost half of the €6 billion in financial support it pledged to Turkey for the facility. Much of the other €3 billion is already earmarked for specific projects. These funds are intended to support the most vulnerable refugees in Turkey, as well as host communities.

The EU should massively expand this part of the arrangement with additional funds and projects. The bloc should request that, in return, Erdogan makes a strong commitment to stop using refugees to achieve his political goals. At the same time, the sides should abandon the deal’s malfunctioning logic of deportation and resettlement. European asylum procedures and resettlement efforts should not be based on the mechanism of a deal but defined by the rights of refugees and the needs of the most vulnerable. By focusing the agreement on a renewed commitment to substantively increase support for refugees in Turkey, the EU would improve its chances of establishing more constructive dialogue with the country.

At the same time, the EU should step up humanitarian action directed at civilians in Idlib and those fleeing armed conflict. Given that neither the Russian-Turkish ceasefire in Idlib nor Turkish plans for a “safe zone” in Syria will fully guarantee civilians’ safety, displacement to Turkey will continue. Refugees from Idlib will benefit from a revised EU-Turkey agreement that focuses on the protection and well-being of refugees in Turkey and creates resettlement options for the most vulnerable among them. A renewed European commitment to international norms and a strong humanitarian response to the crisis on the Greek islands, as well as in Turkey and Idlib, would not immediately fix EU-Turkish relations or address the root causes of the conflict in northern Syria. But it would balance out the EU’s current reliance on border security measures. It would also help the bloc regain some moral high ground and political initiative in a crisis that it has ignored for too long.

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

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ECFR Alumni · Policy Fellow