The chaos of thousands of refugees arriving on the Greek islands daily may soon slow if the European Union and Turkey can implement a plan to keep them from coming to Europe.
The deal, which has been in the works for months, calls for the European Commission to give Turkey up to 3 billion euros to step up coast guard patrols, arrest more smugglers and build six additional reception centers along its southern border with Syria. In return, Turkey has asked for visa-free travel to Europe for its 75 million citizens and the reopening of its long-stalled EU accession talks.
Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country in the world.
While the deal ignores the root causes of the crisis, it’s a win for all political players involved. European leaders can show their constituents they’ve taken action on a situation that is growing untenable. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gains important political leverage as the country approaches its Nov. 1 parliamentary elections.
But it’s doubtful that the deal will benefit refugees themselves. The draft plan is clear on its intention to keep them from entering Europe, but vague on how it would boost their rights within Turkey. It also lacks real commitment to opening new, safe channels for legal resettlement to Europe.
The plan, which has not been finalized, calls for Europe to give Turkey more financial support toward hosting 2.2 million-plus refugees, the vast majority of whom are Syrian. It also calls for Turkey to update its asylum system and give refugees more opportunities to work and go to school.
Those are worthy and commendable goals. But implementation will take immense political will, and could prove far more costly than the offer that’s now on the table.
“If Turkey really commits to this, the EU should think of the 3 billion [euros] as a down payment,” said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute’s European arm. Indeed, the sum is less than half of the 7 billion euros Turkey has spent on aid since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. Turkey’s foreign minister, Feridun Sinirlioğlu, has said the 3 billion would only cover the plan’s first year.
And with the plan’s focus on securing European borders, refugees’ rights may get lost in the shuffle. In a report released Saturday, ahead of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Istanbul, Amnesty International warned that the deal ignores recent “failures of the Turkish authorities to respect the rights of refugees and migrants.”
The group said it has documented several recent cases where refugees have been returned to Iraq and Syria after being intercepted by Turkish border guards as they tried to reach Europe. Others have been detained without access to lawyers.
As it stands, refugees in Turkey face harsh restrictions to their daily lives. Most cannot work legally, and efforts to grant them work permits have proven politically unpopular amid a slowing economy. Only about 15 percent live in refugee camps, while the rest must find their own housing. More than 70 percent of refugee children are not enrolled in school. Access to healthcare is limited.
This is mostly due to Turkish law regarding the treatment of refugees, which is quite different from the European system. In Turkey, Syrians fall under their own special legal regime called “temporary protection,” which is just that: temporary. It can end, or individuals can be deported, at any time. (Refugees from other nations, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, fall under a separate system with even fewer rights.)
Even visiting another city within Turkey is difficult. Recently police have begun arresting refugees who travel without advance permission.
Full refugee status, as is conferred in Europe, gives refugees the right to housing and social services, and oftentimes, a pathway to citizenship. They also have easier access to the labor market in Europe.
Metin Çorabatir, president of the Research Center for Asylum and Migration in Ankara, said the deal is an “opportunity for Turkey to adapt to a modern asylum system” and raise itself to European standards.
Right now the only legal way for refugees in Turkey to gain these rights is resettlement to other countries. And while more than 650,000 refugees have crossed into Europe this year, just a trickle have been resettled directly from countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The EU-Turkey plan does not give a number for how many could be resettled, or details on potential new resettlement avenues.
More than 3,100 refugees have drowned this year trying to cross into Greece from Turkey, according to the UNHCR. Thousands more have died in attempts to reach Italy from North Africa.
At a news conference in Athens last week, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres called on Europe to take more refugees directly from Turkey and Jordan.
“We need to substantially increase the number of opportunities for people to come to Europe legally,” he said, fresh off a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos. “It’s impossible not to be shocked when we see those boats which are manufactured just for this crossing, very fragile. I have never seen boats as fragile as those I have seen in Lesbos, which are destroyed immediately afterwards.”
Migrant rights groups say the results of Turkey’s election will determine which parts of the EU-Turkey deal go into effect.
“Erdoğan is powerful enough to deliver on his promises, but he may not be sincere,” Papademetriou said. “Another government might be more progressive and likely to implement the plan, but not powerful enough.”
If any piece goes ignored, he added, “the whole thing can easily unravel.”
Tania Karas is a freelance journalist and 2015-16 U.S. Fulbright fellow based in Athens, Greece reporting on refugees and migration policy at a time of financial crisis. She was previously based in Istanbul. Prior to that, Tania covered legal education, immigration and New York courts for the New York Law Journal.