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Expert Views: The E.U.-Turkey Deal After Two Years

On the second anniversary of the E.U.-Turkey deal that curbed refugee boats to Greece, experts from Turkey, Greece and Germany weigh in on the agreement’s impact on refugees and on Europe.

Written by Charlotte Alfred, Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A Turkish coast guard boat approaches Dikili after a rescue operation for refugees stuck on rocks offshore in Izmir, Turkey, on December 14, 2017. Evren Atalay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The E.U.-Turkey statement of March 20, 2016, was a turning point in Europe’s crisis over refugees.

Under the deal, Turkey would prevent boats leaving its shores for Greece, while Athens would return arriving migrants to Turkey. In exchange, the E.U. would increase funding and resettlement for refugees in Turkey, along with other political sweeteners.

Very little of the deal’s original provisions have been implemented, but the number of boats did drop drastically (while continuing to fluctuate, just as the journey continues to be deadly). Coming after 1 million people arrived in Europe in 2015, E.U. policymakers continue to defend the deal as a major success.

At the same time, human rights groups say many of their warnings about the agreement have been realized: Refugees are warehoused in dire conditions on the Greek islands while Turkey threatens a new surge in refugee boats to ward off criticism about its human rights situation.

On the second anniversary of its signing, we asked experts from Turkey, Greece and Germany weigh in on the agreement’s impact on refugees and on Europe.

Marie Walter, researcher, Jacques Delors Institut, Berlin, and doctoral fellow, Freie Universität Berlin

BERLIN – The most striking feature of the E.U.-Turkey experiment is how traditional it has turned out to be. Rather than an innovative template for new comprehensive migration deals, the practical result has been a continuation of the E.U.’s external migration policy: large amounts of cash in exchange for border control.

The one-for-one swap, under which Greece would return asylum seekers at the same rate they arrived from Turkey, could never be fully implemented. It would have led Greece to commit grave breaches of international refugee law. All the swapping mechanism achieved was to lock thousands of people in overcrowded hotspots on Greek islands. Together with the closure of the Balkan Route this had a deterrent effect on crossings.

The deal’s true centerpiece was the 3 billion euro ($3.7bn) E.U. Facility for Refugees in Turkey (FRIT), half of which is dedicated to emergency humanitarian aid, while the other half finances long-term projects. It’s a success story, though not a smooth one. Ankara regularly criticizes the E.U. for being too slow to deliver because it channels aid through NGOs, even threatening to end the deal last January.

Frustration was understandable during the lengthy contracting phase but in the past year, things progressed quickly. The full budget was allocated to 72 projects, of which almost two-thirds had been disbursed by January. A second 3bn euros has, as promised, been announced.

Other elements of the deal such as the revival of E.U. accession talks, visa liberalization, customs union reform and the large-scale Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme are on hold due to Turkey’s turn toward authoritarianism.

Improving the relationship is a priority of the Bulgarian presidency of the E.U. Council, but while Ankara refuses to halt its military operation in Northern Syria, and territorial disputes with Greece and Cyprus rekindled, progress is unlikely. Member states will decide at next week’s European Council whether a proposed E.U.-Turkey summit can take place.

There seems to be no red line Turkey could cross which would force Europeans to denounce the deal, but the partnership is under considerable stress.

There seems to be no red line Turkey could cross which would force Europeans to denounce the deal but the partnership is under considerable stress. Moving forward, the E.U. should have three priorities: to ensure the continued support to refugees in Turkey and the region more broadly, while making sure that transit countries do not misuse refugees to capture aid; exert more diplomatic pressure concerning the repression of Kurds and the opposition in Turkey; and engage in regional cooperation to channel Turkey’s involvement in Syria into the peace-building process.

For a comprehensive analysis, read Marie Walter-Franke’s post “Two years into the E.U.-Turkey ‘deal’: Impact and challenges of a turbulent partnership” on the blog of the Jacques Delors Institut – Berlin.

Sevda Tunaboylu, PhD candidate at Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona

ISTANBUL – In the two years since the E.U. and Turkey signed the deal, 2,164 people have been deported from Greek islands to Turkey. Little is known about what happens to those people afterwards.

Turkey’s readmission procedure differs for Syrians and non-Syrians. So far, Syrians have only been returned to Turkey after signing voluntary return papers. However, the concept of “voluntary” return is highly problematic. Many Syrians are not signing the papers because they actually want to go back to Turkey but because they fear arbitrary detention, violence and the risk of deportation on the Greek islands.

Syrians who are returned to Turkey can – on paper – apply for temporary protection status. However our research shows this is not a straightforward process. Some Syrians were not able to obtain this status after they returned despite several attempts to register with Turkish authorities. Without registration, they have no access to basic rights and services. As a result, several families have returned to Syria despite the dire conditions that await them there.

Detainees described being given misinformation by staff and being pressured to voluntarily return to their countries.

For non-Syrians, we found that the situation is even worse. Non-Syrians are deported to Turkey if they don’t have an asylum application or if it is withdrawn or rejected. They are detained immediately upon arrival with the purpose of deporting them to their countries of origin. They have barely any access to legal aid or asylum procedures in these removal centers. Detainees described being given misinformation by staff and being pressured to voluntarily return to their countries. By September 2017, only 5 percent of non-Syrians returned from Greece were able to apply for asylum in Turkey. Just two of them were granted refugee status. More than two-thirds of non-Syrians returned from Greece were deported to their countries of origin.

The living conditions in the removal centers are already unacceptable. Detainees report lack of privacy, security, adequate food and health care, as well as limited communication with the outside world. If more people are deported to Turkey, this would likely result in worsening conditions, longer periods of detention and/or faster deportations.

It is clear that the governments of both Greece and Turkey are still not able to ensure access to a fair and effective asylum procedure and protect the principle of nonrefoulement for deportees. If the premise of the deal was to shift the protection responsibilities to Turkey on the basis that people can enjoy protection there, then it is Europe’s responsibility to guarantee the right to asylum for those deported to Turkey.

Dimitris Christopoulos, head of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)

ATHENS – Since 1951, law students around the world have been taught that a refugee is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence [with] a well-founded fear of persecution.”

Two years on from the E.U.-Turkey statement, law students today need to grapple with a different definition: should the refugee stop somewhere next to their burning house, they can no longer be considered a refugee. No longer in immediate danger, they are considered to be in a “safe third country.” The principle of nonrefoulement does not count anymore. The refugee must remain there.

This is the legal and political basis of refugee management externalization, or put more simply, the excuse for containment. In practice, once the persecuted person manages to flee to the country next door, they lose their refugee status. A Syrian refugee is considered a refugee when they are fleeing home but once they enter Turkey, they must stay there. It is safe. They are no longer seen as a refugee.

If the E.U.-Turkey statement survives, ultimately the Refugee Convention will be reduced to an “empty letter” – devoid of its original purpose. One of the pivotal achievements of the 20th century is at risk because 1 million refugees entered Northern Europe in 2015 and some more may follow.

This has given rise to voices saying that things are different now from 1951, suggesting we revise the convention, worrying that Europe cannot manage alone. To their point of view, outsourcing refugee management to Turkey seems a plausible solution.

Let us be honest. What we are doing is charging the poor to keep the poorest.

Let us be honest. What we are doing is charging the poor to keep the poorest. Turkey will keep Syrians. Should they make it across the Aegean, Greece can finish the job. Sub-Saharan Africans will make it no further than somewhere in North Africa where slavery in Libya is cynically regarded as collateral damage as long as the Libyans halt migrants; Tanzanians will stop in Kenya; Rohingyas in Bangladesh. It is a nightmare domino effect.

What is important is that Europe should receive no more refugees. The mainstream narrative puts it simply: Should more refugees come then the far right will rise.

If we refuse the persecuted the right to knock on the door of Europe – and this is what the E.U.-Turkey deal does – because we are afraid that fascists will come, then we are simply becoming the beast we are supposedly fighting against.

We end up saying exactly what the far right believes. And they are more convincing, more original and passionate than the E.U. bureaucracy. This, not refugees, is the real problem Europe faces.

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