Three years ago the EU and Turkey signed a historic migration agreement. For Sweden, disagreements on migration policy had major consequences for both the election and forming a government. As the American ”final strikes” take place in Syria, European countries choose different strategies to deal with their national ”jihadists”. This sheds new light on the agreement. A review of the situation underlines the consequences if it breaks down, and that Turkey is still holding the key to the EU migration.
Currently hosting the largest refugee population in the world, Turkey is increasingly put under the spotlight regarding migration to the EU. The country undeniably plays a key role in the issue, due to its geographic position between Europe and troubled areas to its south and east. Most of Turkey’s 3,9 million refugees come from war-torn countries or countries with fragile states in and around the Middle East. This vast population is for the most part composed of 3,6 million Syrians escaping the civil war that began in their country in 2011. There are also 170 000 refugees from Afghanistan, 142 000 from Iraq, 39 000 from Iran, 5700 from Somalia and 11 000 of other nationalities..
The EU refugee crisis
The EU refugee crisis of 2015 clearly established that this population swell is also a matter of concern for the European Union (EU), when over 850 000 refugees, mostly Syrians, crossed the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece to seek asylum on EU soil. The crisis is still remembered for disruptive and upsetting events such as the deaths over 800 people en route and an international breakdown of solidarity disturbing the lives of hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Amid the panic and chaos caused by the sudden migratory influx, the “Common European Asylum System” strained and was unable to manage the crisis. Instead, member countries pursued their own distinctive policies. While some did not even admit a single refugee, a country like Germany welcomed one million refugees in as short a period as one year.
The uncontrolled arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants triggered grave political consequences for the EU, resulting in the rise of extreme right and xenophobic rhetoric, damaging harmonious cooperation between the member states and threatening fundamental values as openness, tolerance and respect for human dignity.
Moreover, the humanitarian tragedy became exacerbated as arrivals to Greece – namely the islands of Lesvos, Kos and Samos – kept up incessantly. The overcrowded refugee camps lacked proper infrastructure and most refugees lived under very poor conditions. Greece’s asylum system has been ineffective in alleviating the crisis because of long procedures, financial problems and shortage of qualified staff.
Against this background, the EU political elite chose to contain the crisis not by international solidarity, but by practical measures aimed at slashing the migratory influx from Turkey. On March 2016, the European Council and the Turkish AKP (Justice and Development) government agreed on the “EU-Turkey Statement & Action Plan”, stipulating that all illegal migrants arriving in Greece after 20 March 2016, irrespective of their nationalities, would be sent back to Turkey provided that their asylum demands were rejected by Greek authorities.
In addition, for every Syrian citizen sent back from Greece, one Syrian registered in a refugee camp in Turkey would be resettled in the EU in line with a “one-on-one mechanism”. Following a substantial decrease of arrivals, the one-on-one mechanism would be replaced by a “Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme” where member states would systemically admit a larger number of refugees. The agreement also launched the “EU-Facility for Refugees”, according to which a total of 6 billion euros would be transferred to Turkey. In return, Turkey would curb crossings to Greece and look after the refugees for an undetermined period.
Cutting the influx
In its third year, the EU-Turkey agreement has proved effective in cutting down the influx: while 856 723 refugees arrived in Greece in 2015, the number dropped to 173 40 in 2016, most crossings taking place before the signature of the EU-Turkey agreement. The number of arrivals was subsequently registered as 29 718 for 2017 and 32 497 for 2018. Also, only 19,340 Syrians from Turkey were replaced in the EU during last three years according to the one-on-one mechanism.
From this perspective, the agreement can be considered as an achievement for the EU side, which essentially aimed at attaining just such a sharp decline in arrivals. The agreement also came at a good time for the Turkish AKP government as it was tackling a serious financial burden after spending 10 billion euros on refugees.
Yet, the “EU-Turkey Statement & Action Plan” did not end the crisis but merely transformed the challenges for interested parties. From the EU’s perspective, it seems less pressured by a mass of refugees lingering at its gateway, having assumed a financial role instead. Brussels has so far approved funding 72 projects that worth 3 billion euros. 2 billion of these funds have already been allocated, mostly within the framework of the “Emergency Social Safety Net”, the largest ever EU humanitarian programme reaching 1,5 million Syrians to help provide their basic needs as food, medicine and housing. The EU has also agreed to release a second tranche of 3 billion euros, but only gradually as further projects are undertaken in coordination with the Turkish government.
From the Turkish side, such financial input from the EU is essential but not sufficient in itself to manage the crisis. Firstly, according to the Turkish government the cost of the refugees has amounted to 30 billion euros, a figure far beyond the promised 6 billion euros. Secondly, Ankara repeatedly complains of the intervals in transfer of these resources as it is in immediate need of additional funds.
Towards a Turkish refugee crisis
This has lead to the extended stay of 3,6 million Syrians which has brought about the “greatest demographic shift in Turkey since the 1923 population exchange with Greece”. In a country already marked by crystallized social fault lines and polarizations, such transformation increases stress on social tensions. It is important to remember that the Syrians in Turkey are not officially recognized as “refugees” but are under “temporary protection”. Only 150 000 of them live in refugee camps and have access to welfare services.
The rest is dispersed all over Turkey without being entitled to work. Following the March 2016 agreement, the EU has impelled the Turkish government to deliver work permits under certain conditions. However, only 60 000 Syrians have so far been eligible. Around one million Syrians are employed in the informal economy for wages well under the labour market average. Their availability as a cost-effective work force, combined with cultural differences prompt resentment among local communities, degenerating at times into intercommunal violence.
After the war
Besides such economic and social difficulties, two imminent problems may also exert additional pressures on Turkey. The first one concerns the case of the EU citizen “Islamic State” fighters. As the organization gets closer to total defeat in Syria, it is expected that around 3000 fighters will intend to return to Europe through Turkey.
The EU member states have not yet agreed on how to deal with these fighters whom they rightfully consider as security threats. Many consider dismissing their citizenships and averting their return. Such a getaway attempt may result in their entrapment in Turkey, to Ankara’s further annoyance. Another issue concerns a possible military action by the Syrian army against the last opposition groups squeezed the Idlib region, which would probably result in additional 250 000 refugees fleeing to Turkey.
A doomed agreement
As such, the lifespan of the EU-Turkey agreement depends de facto on how long Turkey will be able to endure the world’s biggest migratory pressure. However, what seems to be a burden for Turkey is also a factor of leverage. In order to prompt the EU side to favourable action, President Erdogan occasionally warns that Turkey might consider “re-opening its borders for the Syrians”, or, that the Syrians will sooner or later “start knocking on the EU’s door”. So far Ankara has not withdrawn from the agreement as it still expects EU’s cooperation. Above all, the Turkish government plans to send back as many Syrian refugees as possible and needs EU’s support, at least diplomatically, in creating safe zones in Syria where they can be transferred.
As the Syrian crisis extends even further, the EU stands before three choices: One option is to become more engaged in the well-being of millions of Syrians. The EU has all the necessary resources to be more active in the field and contribute to a sustainable solution in Syria. The successful and strong-minded diplomacy regarding the Iranian nuclear crisis has proven that the EU is able to assume a positive role in the Middle Eastern affairs. It is of vital importance to repeat such determination and engage in a functioning Syrian policy with a focus on conflict management and peace intermediation between belligerent forces. It is also a good time to show solidarity with Syrian people by offering systemic protection through the “Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme” stipulated by the EU-Turkey agreement.
Without such engagement, the EU will be left with a very different second option: rubbing the AKP the right way to secure that the refuges stay in Turkey. If the EU members are merely interested in isolating themselves from the Syrian crisis and keeping the arrival of refugees in Europe as low as possible, they will simply give more leverage to the Turkish government. In this case, the EU would need to be ready to give more money, an absolute support to Ankara’s Syrian policy and possibly other unanticipated concessions depending on how the Syrian crisis evolve.
The third option would simply be assuming the risk of another uncontrolled migratory influx, this time potentially including IS fighters.
What implications for Sweden?
At this juncture, the EU members need to acknowledge that the refugee crisis will not be over in a foreseeable future and that the agreement with Turkey is not sustainable for long years. It is time to take the next step and contemplate over how the EU could contribute to a better future for the Syrian people. The remaining options could harm further the refugees, but also introduce unanticipated burdens that the EU is not yet fully equipped for.
Ozan Serdaroglu, Phd, served as Assistant Professor at the European University of Lefke and as Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy, a Swedish think tank based in Stockholm. He has also been affiliated with the IREMAM (L’Institut de recherches et d’études sur le monde arabe et musulman), the European Commission and UNESCO. He has research experience on Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean, with a focus on political risk analysis, political and economic development, Euro-Med relations, regional cooperation and energy issues.
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