Migration Deals Risk Undermining Global Refugee Protection

 A boat carrying migrants approaches shore after making the crossing from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos in November 2015. Photo: Getty Images.
A boat carrying migrants approaches shore after making the crossing from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos in November 2015. Photo: Getty Images.

Last month the European Commission proposed that the EU should mobilize the next tranche of funding for Turkey (€3 billion) under the EU–Turkey deal agreed in 2016. The deal is part of a rapidly developing strategy on the part of the EU to improve cooperation on migration issues with countries of origin as well as those through which migrants and refugees transit en route to Europe. Since 2015, the EU has ramped up negotiations, with the New Partnership Framework underpinning arrangements with countries such as Niger, Mali and Ethiopia, and endorsing a memorandum of understanding between Italy and Libya in February 2017.

A common thread that runs across all of these deals is their focus on containment in exchange for funding, rather than a principled approach to refugee protection. For example, the EU has committed around €6 billion to Turkey as a contribution towards the cost of humanitarian assistance for the over 3 million Syrian refugees residing there. This funding also operates as an incentive for Turkey to take back all refugees and migrants who have irregularly arrived in Greece via Turkey since the deal entered effect.

Similarly, the EU is providing financial support to Libya in exchange for its cooperation in reducing the flow of migrants and refugees towards Europe, while the New Partnership Framework aims to reduce the number of migrants and refugees departing for Europe in exchange for EU aid. While financial incentives geared towards containment do not amount to new policy, with the increasing number of deals being negotiated, the use of such a strategy appears to be both accelerating and becoming more explicit.

An effective investment?

Implementation of these deals has been hindered by obligations under international law, raising questions not only as to their legality but also their value for money.

Under the EU–Turkey deal, refugees arriving in Greece irregularly were to be returned to Turkey, with an equal number of Syrian refugees resettled to Europe in exchange. However, implementation of this aspect of the deal has been limited.

Under EU asylum law, Greece is obliged to provide access to asylum procedures for those arriving on its shores. Given that most arrivals from Turkey came from refugee-producing countries (including Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq), an individualized assessment of ‘safe third country’ is required before any possible return to Turkey can take place. This requires a finding that Turkey can guarantee effective access to protection for the individual in question, including protection against refoulement (i.e. forced return to a country where he or she is at risk of serious harm or persecution). By the end March 2018, only 2,164 people had been returned to Turkey.

As for Italy, with EU support, under the MOU with Libya it has been training as well as providing funding and logistical support to the Libyan coastguard – including an Italian naval presence in Libyan waters – to intercept boats in the Mediterranean. Given the mounting evidence of abuse of migrants and refugees, whether by Libyan coastguards or inside Libyan detention centres, this raises questions as to whether the support being provided by Italy and the EU amounts to a breach of international law.

Despite concerns about the protection risks for refugees, advocates of such deals claim they have the potential to prevent dangerous journeys, saving lives and interrupting the business model of smugglers. Numbers crossing the Mediterranean have indeed dropped since the deals were agreed. However, in Libya it has created an ‘anti-smuggling’ market which, despite leading to a reduction of migration in the short term, may not be sustainable in the long term if it drives conflict between various non-state actors.

In the case of the EU–Turkey deal, while it has led to a fall in arrivals to the Greek islands in the first six months of 2017, there is also evidence that smugglers were already adapting their routes, forcing refugees and migrants to travel on the more dangerous central Mediterranean route.

For now, at least, these deals appear to have gained significant popular support within the EU. Italy’s approaches in Libya, for example, have been broadly backed by the Italian public – unsurprising given that some polls indicate 50 percent of the Italian population believe migrants to be a threat to public security. However, the drivers of public attitudes towards refugees and migration are complex and, as noted in a policy brief (opens in new window) published under the Chatham House–ODI Forum on Refugee and Migration Policy, influenced in part by narratives driven by politicians and the media.

What some of these deals have achieved is the significant flow of aid money towards job creation and economic opportunities for refugees, incentivizing policy change in some contexts and producing real benefits for the refugees concerned (while reducing pressures on them to move onwards via dangerous journeys).

A prominent example is the Jordan Compact, a 2016 agreement between Jordan, the EU and international financial institutions including the World Bank to improve the livelihoods and education of Syrian refugees inside Jordan. While challenges in its implementation remain, including concerns about labour rights, the Jordan Compact has resulted in real improvements in education and access to the labour market for Syrian refugees. The Jordanian government has made policy concessions on access to work permits for Syrian refugees, removing some of the barriers that prevented refugees accessing jobs, while the EU has committed to ease trade barriers for goods produced in Jordanian factories on condition they hire a percentage of Syrian refugees.

Likewise, the EU–Turkey deal’s most successful component has been its financial contribution of €3 billion of aid under the EU Facility for Refugees towards support for the 3.7 million Syrian refugees currently being hosted by Turkey. This includes €1 billion allocated to the Emergency Social Safety Net, described by the European Commission as the ‘largest single humanitarian project in the history of the EU’, directly impacting the livelihoods of some 1.1 million vulnerable refugees.

Moving ahead

While some aspects of these deals reflect a genuine effort to cooperate in addressing the needs of refugees, other elements risk undermining the very essence of the global refugee protection regime.

The diplomatic squabble over a proposed refugee ‘swap’ of 1,250 refugees between the US and Australia in February 2017 highlights the danger of refugees becoming bargaining chips. Similarly, the Kenyan government’s announcement that it would close Dadaab refugee camp in late November 2016 cited the EU-Turkey deal as justification. Migration partnerships which emphasise the securing of EU borders against refugee arrivals may diminish the willingness of states in the Global South to continue to host large numbers of refugees.

While the positive aspects of such deals deserve acknowledgement, understanding their impact on refugee protection must be given greater attention. This is vital not only to ensure their workability but also to ensure that those countries who spearheaded the creation of the global refugee protection regime do not end up undermining its existence.

Amanda Gray Meral, Associate Fellow, International Law Programme.

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