The agreement the European Union reached with Turkey in March to close the Aegean route to refugees was meant to create the breathing space necessary to set up a more sustainable asylum system. Whether the deal will achieve even this limited goal is questionable, however, as is Turkey’s treatment of migrants.
Under the terms of the agreement between Turkey and the EU, “irregular migrants” who arrive in Greece from Turkey from March 20 onward – i.e. those who have not applied for asylum or whose asylum applications have already been rejected – will be returned to Turkey; in exchange, for each Syrian returned from Greece, a Syrian in Turkey will be resettled within the EU. Turkey is also set to receive a number of benefits: Turkish citizens will, as of the end of June 2016, be permitted to travel visa-free within the EU; Turkey will receive €3 billion to aide in its efforts to accommodate the refugees within its borders, roughly two million as of December 2015; and Turkish accession to the EU will be put back on the agenda.
The hope underpinning the deal is that, by rendering the illegal routes futile, the joint action plan will put the smugglers out of business, and discourage asylum seekers from risking the dangerous journey over the Aegean Sea.
The agreement, however, met with immediate backlash from a number of concerned organizations – among them Medecines Sans Frontières (MSF) and the UNHCR, both of which have withdrawn their support from Greek registration camps in response. Aurélie Ponthieu, MSF Humanitarian Adviser on Displacement, said that the deal “shows once again how European leaders have completely lost track of reality.”
One of the concerns regards Greece’s capacity to implement the provisions of the agreement humanely: in preparation for the deportation of asylum seekers already on the Greek islands, registration centers have been converted into closed detention centers. This is the step MSF found particularly objectionable, saying of its decision to leave the Moria registration camp: “We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalized for a mass expulsion operation.” There is also a fear that, given the numbers involved, Greek authorities will be unable to consider asylum applications individually, instead making blanket decisions based on nationality – a step that would contravene the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
An even greater concern, though, is the reception asylum seekers will receive once they arrive in Turkey.
The agreement hinges on Turkey’s definition as a “safe third country” under European criteria: a country that offers refugees a reasonable expectation of safety, to which refugees can be sent under European law. Under the terms of the agreement, Turkey has promised that refugees sent back will be treated in accordance with international law, and will not be forced to return to their countries of origin. They can apply for asylum in Turkey, and once flows to Europe have been brought under control, a “Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme” is supposed to be activated to manage their distribution.
However, while Turkey has been recognizing Syrians’ claim to asylum, it has approved a worryingly low percentage of their applications, and refuses to recognize any at all from other countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq. According to a December 2015 Amnesty International report, the Turkish government has been detaining refugees and asylum seekers indefinitely, refusing access to communication with the outside world – and has in some cases forced them to return to their home countries, despite promises to the contrary. Hours after the new EU-Turkey agreement went into effect, Turkey forcibly returned 30 Afghan refugees to Kabul. Ankara claimed their return was “voluntary”; Amnesty International disputes this. And with Turkish treatment of refugees now in the spotlight, reports of even graver abuses are emerging: on March 31, the Times of London learned of 16 Syrian migrants, including three children, who were shot by Turkish border guards while attempting to enter the country.
No Medicine, No Bus Ticket
Until the EU-Turkey agreement went into effect, there were two refugee camps outside the village of Moria on the island of Lesbos: the official registration center, the so-called “hot spot” that opened in July 2015 where asylum seekers arriving from Turkey could register with the EU external borders agency Frontex; and, in an olive grove directly outside its concrete and barbed wire perimeter, Better Days for Moria, a volunteer-run transit camp founded in November 2015 to house the overwhelming number of new arrivals until they could be processed. In March, the vast majority of Better Days for Moria’s roughly 650 residents were Pakistanis, most of whom were ineligible for asylum. Now, with the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement, the registration center has become one of the closed detention facilities, and Better Days for Moria has closed, its residents moved to the detention facility or to the harbor at Mytilene to be sent to Turkey.
Qamar, a Pakistani journalist who reported on government connections to organized crime, lived at the Better Days for Moria camp until its closure. He chose to flee Pakistan after his life and the lives of his wife and three children were threatened; his family, which could not follow him, lives in hiding at the home of a relative. Like many other Pakistanis, he traveled through Iran and then Turkey on his way to Greece. In Turkey, refugees – Pakistanis in particular – are frequently harassed by the police, and forced to rely on illicit networks to procure even basic goods. “We cannot get medicine, we cannot get a bus ticket, we cannot go through the market…We have to remain outside the city.”
Many of the refugees who remain in Lesbos, in fact, are from countries that fall outside the purview of the recent agreement entirely: in addition to the Iraqis and Afghans, there are Pakistanis, Iranians, Bangladeshis, and Moroccans, among many others; and within those populations, there are individuals from vulnerable national minorities, including Yazidis and Baluchis, many of whom are not safe in their home countries.
The Pakistanis are in a particularly difficult situation: Pakistan has been refusing to readmit those who are sent back, returning them instead to Turkey and rendering them essentially stateless. Aqib, another former Better Days for Moria resident, fled the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir, an area of persistent fighting between Indian and Pakistani forces as well as Islamist militants; he lost his brother and mother before leaving. He too traveled through Iran and Turkey on his way to Europe. In Istanbul, he says, those who look Pakistani are “targeted and killed.”
“Turkey now is considered the first safe country – but Turkey is not safe,” says Camilla Lynge, a 31-year old from Denmark who worked at Better Days for Moria for two months. “The refugees’ stories about the Turkish coast guard, how they are flooding their boats, how they are hunting them on the sea, even times where they have punctured their rubber boats, refugees who have been beaten up by the Turkish police…Turkey hasn’t shown any of the people who came here to Lesbos any humanity.”
Aside from the dangers the agreement poses to refugees’ safety, it may not even reduce the total refugee influx over the longer term – in attempting to close the Aegean route, it may simply push more asylum seekers to attempt to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, as was common a year ago.
If the European Union wants to achieve a lasting solution to the refugee crisis, the focus needs to be at the beginnings and endings of the refugee flows – improving the speed and transparency of asylum adjudications in Europe (and devoting significant resources to integrating those granted asylum), and becoming more engaged in solving the “push” factors in countries of origin. The current arrangement does neither, serving only to erect an obstacle in the middle – and by turning Turkey into Europe’s waiting room, it is only creating a crisis elsewhere.