The beginning of the end, or the start of something new?


Picture of Heaven Crawley
Heaven Crawley

Chair in International Migration at Coventry University

Heaven Crawley is Chair in International Migration at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR), Coventry University

From today, refugees and migrants who arrived in Greece after 20th March will be returned to Turkey as the result of last month’s widely-criticised deal. This latest attempt to ‘solve’ the migration crisis will likely see images screened around the world of the European authorities ‘being tough’ on those who arrive illegally. It is hoped that this will send a message to refugees and migrants that they are no longer welcome in Europe. At the same time, European leaders hope to show their own electorates that they can be trusted to manage the EU’s borders.

A breakdown of the first returns that took place on Monday indicates that most of those deported from Lesbos were Pakistani, and shockingly that 42 Afghans were deported from Chios, along with others from Iran, Somalia and the Congo. It is still unclear what will happen if and when the main nationalities are removed, much less how Greece will be able to quickly decide who is allowed to stay in Europe and the consequences for those who are not. Both the Greek authorities and the EU are struggling with the pressure the deal with Turkey has placed on them and the need to relieve overcrowding at the largest detention centre, Moria, which was designed to house 2,000 people but now holds nearer 3,000. On the Greek island of Chios on Friday, hundreds of people tore down a razor-wire fence that was holding them in and protested on the streets. A new law was hurriedly passed by the Greek government that day to enable the returns to begin, but according to UNHCR neither side is ready.

The Greek Asylum Service is at breaking point with insufferable pressure

Large numbers of Frontex staff have been sent to Lesbos to accompany those returned to Turkey, but there are far too few people undertaking the most important task: processing applications for asylum. According to Maria Stavropoulou, head of the Greek Asylum Service, the asylum system is at breaking point with “insufferable pressure” being put on a limited number of caseworkers “to reduce our standards and minimise the guarantees of the asylum process”. The service has hired three dozen new personnel, bringing its total to 295, but it says it will need at least double that number to handle the expected caseload in the wake of the EU-Turkey agreement.

Equally difficult is knowing what will happen when people arrive in Dikili, the small Turkish resort opposite Lesbos. The principle of non-refoulement is the cornerstone of asylum and international refugee law. It provides a guarantee that those entitled to protection do in fact receive it, and requires that claims to refugee status are dealt with properly in a country that is a full signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention – Turkey is not – and that claimants are not returned to countries where there is a danger of persecution.

Turkey’s interior minister Efkan Ala has indicated that citizens of countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan will be sent back to their countries of origin following a detention period. This is despite evidence of deteriorating conditions in both Afghanistan and Iraq, including the persecution of minority groups in all three countries. Even before the ink had dried on the EU-Turkey deal, Amnesty International documented around 30 Afghan asylum-seekers who were detained, denied access to asylum procedures and forcibly returned to Afghanistan despite fearing Taliban attacks.

There are concerns, too, about the fate of Syrians returned to Turkey. It was reported last week that the Turkish authorities have been rounding up and expelling to Syria groups of around 100 Syrian men, women and children on a near-daily basis since mid-January. All such forced returns are illegal under Turkish, EU and international law. There are also reports from the UK-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, that 16 Syrian refugees, including three children, have been shot trying to cross into Turkey over recent months.

Turkish authorities have been rounding up and expelling Syrians on a near-daily basis

Although EU leaders have sacrificed many principles of the international refugee regime for the ‘greater good’ of re-establishing a sense of order, all the evidence suggests the deal is unlikely to achieve even this.

First, EU migration policy is driven by moral panic, patchy knowledge and broad assumptions about the people at the heart of the story, the refugees and migrants themselves. During our research on the migration crisis, which is part of the ESRC’s Mediterranean Migration Research Programme, we interviewed 500 refugees and migrants who crossed the Mediterranean in 2015. Our early findings show that while the drivers of migration to Europe are complex and multifaceted, the reason for the significant increase over recent years lies, in large part, with the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq as well as in Africa, where there is violence, political repression and human rights abuse.

So while the number of people making the dangerous journey across the Aegean has declined since news of the EU-Turkey deal emerged, people are still coming. In the last week of March, nearly 2,000 new arrivals were reported in Greece, 90% of them from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. In the same period, 3,888 arrived in Italy having survived the dangerous crossing from Libya; this marks a significant increase on earlier weeks, but there is so far no significant increase in Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis using this route. Last Thursday, though, a boat carrying 22 Syrian and Somali nationals was reported by UNHCR to have arrived at Otranto in south-eastern Italy having travelled from Greece.

This brings us to the second reason why the EU-Turkey deal will most likely fail. In the absence of safe and legal access to asylum in Europe, almost all refugees will have to make journeys facilitated by ‘smugglers’. There are many deadly stories from these journeys, but it is also clear that smugglers provide the only opportunity to access the EU. It is too early to say whether the route from Greece to Italy will become a regular one, but there is already emerging evidence of the ability of smugglers to adapt to the new scenario.

Third, it appears that there is no plan at all about what to do for the more than 50,000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece, where they are hunkering down in accommodation centres, sports stadiums, ports, fields, parks and on the street waiting to see what will happen next. At the start of April, just 1,100 people had been relocated to the 160,000 places originally on offer and there is growing concern that countries that never wanted to take part in the relocation process will use the terrorist threat as an excuse to pull out or significantly slow down progress.

There is already emerging evidence of the ability of smugglers to adapt to the new scenario

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the EU remains utterly dependent on Turkey, where the security situation has deteriorated rapidly. The Turkish government has been notoriously bad at sticking to its end of the deal, leveraging an additional €3bn out of the EU by allowing refugees and migrants to continue crossing the Aegean after promising to halt the flows. The EU-Turkey deal says that visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens travelling to the EU will take place in June at the latest, “provided that all benchmarks have been met”. But if at any stage things don’t go Turkey’s way, it’s likely that the route across the Aegean will simply open up again.

Over the next few days, weeks and months, we will get a clearer sense of whether this is the beginning of the end for Europe’s migration crisis or the start of something new. The stakes are high not just for those in search of protection, but for the future of the European Union itself.

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