The widely criticized agreement between the European Union and Turkey aimed at stopping migrants from entering Greece no longer works five years after it was signed, but the Europeans insist it has served them well and will continue to do so. Not only that, but they want to do business in northern Africa as well.
Recent signals from Brussels and Ankara indicate that an agreement will be reached to resurrect the March 2016 “EU Turkey Statement,” which reduced migrant arrivals to a trickle in a matter of years, and that its terms will be updated.
“I believe it should continue to be applied and the central mechanism for migration cooperation,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday, a week before presenting a report to the 27-nation bloc’s leaders on the strained relationship between the EU and Turkey.
The agreement, according to Borrell, saved lives, prevented most people from crossing the Aegean Sea to islands such as Lesbos and Samos, and strengthened the situation of refugees in Turkey. For relief agencies, however, it culminated in open-air jails, where thousands of prisoners have languished in deplorable conditions and some have been prohibited from entering Turkey.
Five years later, “15,000 women, men, and children remain stuck in overcrowded camps,” according to Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s EU office. She believes it demonstrates the EU’s ability to strike agreements “purely on the basis of political expediency, with little respect for the inevitable human cost.”
Imogen Sudbery of the International Rescue Committee claims it has caused a mental health crisis.
She said, “It has become crystal clear that outsourcing the EU’s migration management to non-EU countries is neither a humane, viable, nor workable solution.”
The agreement was drafted in haste after the arrival of more than one million refugees in Europe in 2015, many of them Syrians and Iraqis fleeing war, triggered one of the EU’s biggest diplomatic crises in history as countries squabbled about how to handle the influx.
To convince Ankara to stop tens of thousands of migrants setting out for Greece, the EU offered Turkey up to 6 billion euros ($7.1 billion) in assistance for Syrian refugees on its soil, visa-free travel for Turkish residents, and accelerated EU membership negotiations.
It’s just a legal ruse; the European Court of Justice has no authority over the terms.
It was a one-to-one exchange. For every migrant taken from the Greek islands by Turkey, a Syrian will be resettled in the EU. According to EU estimates, Turkey has taken 2,140 refugees since March 2016, plus 601 under a deal with Greece, while the EU has resettled 28,621 people.
The agreement had an immediate effect. Within two years, Turkey’s arrivals had plunged, but the EU’s differences continue to this day.
The deal came to a halt a year ago as the coronavirus spread and Turkey, enraged by the EU’s lack of help for its invasion of northern Syria, approved the departure of thousands of migrants, triggering clashes at the Greek border.
Since April, more than 3,000 people from Greece have found new homes in 13 European countries. There hasn’t been a single one sent to Turkey.
Even so, money keeps pouring in — the EU recently expanded two projects in Turkey for Syrian refugees worth nearly half a billion euros (nearly $600 million). The money does not go to the government, but it will flow into the Turkish economy as a result of the migrants’ spending.
The visa and accession negotiations, on the other hand, have been stuck for years and are unlikely to change.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu blamed the stalemate on “political motives” on Tuesday.
“Turkey has fulfilled all of its obligations since 2016,” Cavusoglu said, urging Europeans to respond to Turkey’s proposals to improve the deal, which he said include assistance for refugees willing to return to Syria.
“We must now ensure the Syrians’ voluntary, safe, and honorable return, as well as meeting their basic humanitarian needs,” he said.
This puts the EU in a difficult position. Europeans do not believe Syria is a secure place to send refugees. Turkey, on the other hand, has maneuvered itself into the core of European interests. It has a presence in Syria and Libya, which are both major sources of refugees, and is a central player in the resumption of talks on the divided island of Cyprus next month.
Despite the difficulties, EU foreign and interior ministers met again this week to discuss how to improve “partnerships” with other countries where migrants leave or transit, mostly in Africa, by using trade, development aid, investment, education, and visas as carrots and sticks.
The EU-Turkey agreement, according to Dutch Greens EU lawmaker Tineke Strik, “opened the door to transfer responsibility for refugee reception to countries outside Europe.” Without action from the EU, this outsourcing raises the possibility of human rights abuses against refugees. More of the same agreements means more persecution and less solidarity for refugees.”