The EU-Turkey deal, agreed in March 2016, has shaped the European response to the refugee crisis. But what is it, and why does it matter?
What is the EU-Turkey Deal?
The EU-Turkey Deal, agreed in March 2016, is a statement of cooperation between European states and the Turkish government. It seeks to control the crossing of refugees and migrants from Turkey to the Greek islands, and was initially intended to curb the large numbers of refugees who had arrived to Europe – or lost their lives while trying – in 2015.
The crux of the deal was that every person arriving irregularly (i.e. by boat, without official permission or passage) to the Greek islands – including asylum-seekers – would be returned to Turkey. In exchange, EU Member States would take one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every Syrian returned from the islands.
Why did the EU propose the deal?
In 2015, almost 1 million refugees and irregular migrants arrived to the Europe. Headlines were dominated by tragic mass drownings in the Aegean, or footage of crowds moving through different countries – often in the hope of reaching Northern European countries, and particularly Germany. The political establishment convulsed: Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, wrote that leaders across Europe perceived this to be a crisis of epic proportions. However, as he said, this was a crisis “of politics, not capacity”. His words proved not only insightful, but prophetic.
By early 2016, borders were closing across Europe. Far-right parties were on the rise in Hungary, Poland, Austria, France and more. Newcomers were increasingly framed as a threat to Europe, both cultural and in terms of resources. People continued to lose their lives on the treacherous stretch of water that separated Turkey from Europe, and the Greek government – and its resources – were placed under mounting strain.
As the number of refugee and migrant arrivals continued to rise, and the political climate further deteriorated, European states began to put greater pressure on Turkey to control departures from its coastal cities. A number of European states – spearheaded by Germany, previously seen as the most welcoming country for refugees – began to negotiate a migration control deal with Turkey, which culminated with the EU-Turkey Deal.
For European states, the deal had clear benefits: it externalized their borders, and reduced the number of refugees who would arrive to their countries. However, it had deleterious effects for thousands of refugees – and, in practice, violated international law and norms of refugee protection.
Why did the Turkish government agree to the deal?
Turkey was, at the time of the deal, hosting some 3 million refugees. The vast majority were from Syria (2.7 million), though there were also large numbers of Iraqis and Afghans in the country. The state’s resources were strained, and the government was unable to provide effective protection for refugees.
The EU-Turkey deal pledged €3 billion of European funds, from both institutions and individual states, to improve the humanitarian situation for Syrian refugees in Turkey – with more to follow. Last month, for example, an additional €3 billion was approved by the European Commission.
In addition, a number of political gestures were made towards the Turkish government. These included the revival of E.U. accession talks, visa-free travel for Turkish nationals to the EU, customs union reform and a Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme that would provide for the resettlement of greater numbers of Syrians. However, all of these have been placed on hold due to Turkey’s pivot towards authoritarianism.
What does the deal mean for refugees in Greece?
Overnight, reception facilities and temporary camps on the Greek islands were transformed into detention centres. Refugees who had arrived before the 20th March were transferred to the islands; subsequent arrivals were held on the islands indefinitely. Conditions, already poor, immediately deteriorated: within eleven days, the number of people in Moria Camp on Lesvos was more than double its stated capacity. Refugees have been forced to live in squalid and overcrowded camps, without access to proper sanitation facilities, medical care, or nutritious food.
Amnesty International found that, following the deal, “the Greek Government introduced changes to its asylum procedures and asylum applications began to be rejected at first instance under a fast-track procedure…Many of them were rejected without assessment of their merits on the assumption that Turkey is a safe country for asylum-seekers and refugees.”
A number of legal battles ensued, as refugees fought against the idea that Turkey was a safe country for them. Greek courts have often ruled in the favour of claimants, due to Turkey’s inability to provide effective protection and its repeated deportation of people to conflict zones including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The attempted coup in 2016, and the subsequent – and ongoing – State of Emergency has placed migrants and asylum seekers at greater risk of refoulement.
Yet the EU-Turkey deal remains in place. Thousands of refugees are still trapped on the Greek islands, in poor conditions and a state of legal limbo. While this winter’s transfer of some 8, 000 refugees to the mainland has relieved some of the overcrowding, more than 5,400 people still live in a camp for 2,300 in Moria, Lesvos; 2,000 in a camp designed to host 700 people in Samos; and around 1,300 in Vial camp in Chios.
Médecins Sans Frontières’ medical teams on the Greek islands have released numerous reports and statements on the failure to identify and relocate vulnerable individuals, including survivors of sexual violence, and on the mental health emergency that has unfolded on the islands. In March 2018, the organisation said that “MSF’s mental health clinic on Lesbos is overwhelmed, responding to a high number of acute cases with immediate needs, others with PTSD, anxiety, trauma, and depression. Many inflict self-harm or have suicidal thoughts…After the consultations, staff can do nothing more than send these people back to the same tents, overcrowded containers and legal limbo that cause or compound their suffering.”
The EU-Turkey deal has eroded the rights of refugees and migrants on the Greek islands, prolonged their insecurity, and used their suffering to deter others from making the crossing.
What does the deal mean for refugees in Turkey?
The small number of people eligible for resettlement and the slow pace of transfers means that, for the vast majority of refugees in Turkey, the deal does little but hamper their options for forward movement.
Some 3.7 million refugees are struggling in Turkey: more than 80% of Syrians in Turkey live below the poverty line, and 90% of Syrian refugees interviewed by Bayanat Box said that they limit the quality or quantity of their food due to financial hardship. Turkey’s detention infrastructure is growing, and asylum seekers are facing long delays – of several months – in their applications for international protection.
By September 2017, only 5 percent of non-Syrians returned from Greece were able to apply for asylum in Turkey – and just two of them were granted refugee status. More than two-thirds of non-Syrians returned from Greece were deported to their countries of origin, including fragile states and countries in conflict.
The truth is the same now as it was when the deal was struck: Turkey is not a safe country for refugees, and cannot assure the basic rights of those who are within its territory.
What does the deal mean for Europe?
The EU-Turkey deal has shaped and symbolized Europe’s response to the refugee crisis, both in practical terms and in principle.
First, it has resulted in a smaller number of arrivals to mainland Europe, but has placed a disproportionate burden on Greece – a country that was already under significant economic strain. It has turned the islands in to sites of indefinite containment: the Mayor of Lesvos referred to the island as “Europe’s Guantanamo bay.”
Second, the deal represents a departure from the international architecture that has hitherto been respected – at least nominally – by European states, and has demonstrated the continent’s willingness to flout international norms and law related to refugee protection.
“It has certainly stemmed the flow of migrants across the Aegean,” wrote Amnesty International, “but at considerable cost to Europe’s commitment to upholding the basic principles of refugee protection and the lives of the tens of thousands it has trapped on Greek islands.”
Where do we go from here?
The normalisation of the EU-Turkey deal poses a great risk to the future of refugee protection. It has, in essence, outsourced border control in exchange for cash and political gestures – and done so at great cost to refugees. It is highly important that we continue to monitor the situation in Greece and Turkey, particularly for refugees who are returned to the latter, and advocate for the immediate improvement of conditions and nullification of the deal.
For now, Help Refugees will continue to support those affected by the deal – in mainland Turkey and on the Greek islands. To help us help them, please donate here. Thank you.