Three years on, was the EU-Turkey migrant deal worth it?


Picture of Laura Batalla Adam
Laura Batalla Adam

Secretary General of the European Parliament's Turkey Forum

In 2015, over one million refugees and migrants reached Europe, mostly through the Aegean Sea. Turkey suddenly found itself in a unique position: it became the European Union’s ‘indispensable partner’ in managing migration. The following year, in response to this unprecedented situation, the EU agreed to a deal with Turkey, committing the latter to returning all irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greece. In exchange for this service, Turkey was offered financial support and political concessions.

Three years have passed and questions remain regarding the basis and implementation of the aforementioned deal. Supporters argue that it has been successful in light of the drastic decrease in both the number of arrivals to Europe and lives lost at sea. Following the activation of the deal, irregular arrivals have dropped by 97% to an average of 100 per day according to 2018 figures, a marked departure from the 6,360 average daily arrivals witnessed in October 2015. Similarly, the number of deaths in the Aegean has also decreased from 1,175 in the 20 months preceding the deal to 130 in April 2018. Unfortunately, overall deaths in the Mediterranean due to irregular migration still amounted to nearly 2,300 last year.

Since its outset, the migration situation in Europe has been portrayed as a crisis of numbers. Yet this was never a crisis of numbers. Rather, it’s been a crisis of solidarity and political will. By outsourcing the migration management to Turkey, at a time when the country was already hosting 2.5mn Syrian refugees, Europe dodged its responsibility and moral duty to refugees and migrants.

As part of the deal, EU member states agreed to resettle one Syrian for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from the Greek islands under what is known as the ‘1:1 scheme’. To date, Germany, the Netherlands and France have hosted a vast majority of 20,000 resettlements.

Failure to efficiently implement the agreement has put further pressure on the Greek islands

EU commitments on resettlement, generally very modest in scale, have differed from country to country. The Visegrad countries, in particular, have staunchly opposed any kind of EU quotas on migration. This opposition has exacerbated longstanding divisions among EU countries and has proven an unfortunate obstacle to achieving a unified European humanitarian response to migration.

On the other side, the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal has remained challenged by the slow pace of returns from Greece to Turkey. This failure to efficiently implement the agreement has put further pressure on the Greek islands with limited capacities to host migrants as they become further overstretched. Human rights groups have denounced the degrading conditions in these Greek camps and the way in which asylum applications have been processed, resulting in alleged violations of the right to seek asylum and receive due process.

The refugee return policy has also been contested by the safe third country principle. Turkey retains a geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention that only recognises refugees coming from Europe. This, along with other arguments, has constituted the grounds for the Greek Asylum Appeals Committee to rule on several occasions that Turkey does not qualify as a safe third country.

The reality, however, is that more than 3.6mn Syrian refugees live in Turkey under a temporary protection regime which allows them to enjoy many of the same rights as those with refugee status. Under this system, Syrians are granted a legal stay in Turkey, as well as the accompanying access to free healthcare, education, social aid and even the labour market.

It is time to … find a long-term durable solution for displaced Syrians

The EU-funded Facility for Refugees in Turkey, established to support Turkey’s efforts to address refugees’ needs and host communities, is perhaps the greatest achievement of the deal. More than 1.5mn of the most vulnerable refugees have received humanitarian assistance through the Emergency Social Safety Net and 600,000 children have been integrated into the Turkish school system, thanks in part to European support. However, a number of barriers to full integration remain, mainly in the area of employment, and tensions in society have significantly risen in recent years. After more than seven years living in the country, it is time to move beyond short-term emergency assistance and find a long-term durable solution for displaced Syrians.

However, this has become even more complicated goal to reach as the partners have been unable to achieve a core component of the 2016 agreement: the re-energisation of EU-Turkey relations. Under the terms of the deal, new accession chapters would be opened, visa liberalisation talks would be accelerated and work towards the modernisation of the Customs Union would be continued in return for Turkey’s cooperation. Aside from the opening of two uncontroversial chapters, progress has not materialised.

As the political situation in the country has worsened, moving forward in any of those agreed upon areas has become virtually impossible. Consequently, the European Parliament has called to formally suspend EU accession talks with Ankara, an irreversible decision if followed up on. It is clear that EU-Turkey relations are heading, and have been for some time, toward a transactional model. This will jeopardise Europe’s reputation as a soft power actor, seeing as it will prioritise interests-oriented solutions over those that uphold its principles.

Even if today’s situation is not that of 2015, the EU’s cooperation with Turkey and other third countries in the context of migration management will continue to be high on the agenda. Yet, in the absence of a genuine European policy on migration, there continues to be a risk of further endangering the values upon which the EU is built as well as the credibility of its enlargement policy.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the opinion of the European Parliament or its members.

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