A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Hanging in the Balance

The EU-Turkey agreement has stopped the flow of refugees, but solved little.

In March 2016, the EU signed a landmark refugee agreement with Turkey. A year later, the deal’s future looks as bleak as ever. What’s more, Brussels has done too little to address the root causes of the refugee and migration crisis at its doorstep.

© REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

It was an agreement that the European Union, and Germany in particular, hailed as the key to solving the refugee crisis: the EU would give Turkey a total of 6 billion euros and visa-free travel for its citizens, in return for Ankara blocking refugees or migrants attempting to cross into Greece from its territory.

The reality has been different: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the pact as his personal bargaining chip over his EU counterparts. His threats to scrap the deal were originally leverage in securing visa waivers for Turkish citizens traveling in the EU. Now, however, the rhetoric has grown increasingly dramatic and the threats more menacing, after EU countries Germany and the Netherlands, in the run-up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum in April, banned some pro-Erdogan rallies by Turkish ministers on their soil.

In the eyes of EU bureaucrats, the agreement is still a success story. In fact, over the past few months the EU representatives who helped compose the agreement have been touring across Greece, patting themselves on the back over how well their plan has worked. They are still vowing to speed up the asylum decision process significantly.

They do indeed have some reason to be satisfied. Only around 30 people a day have been arriving on the Greek islands so far this year, a significant drop from 2015, where an average of 2,200 people arrived on a daily basis. Turkey has also agreed that migrants who make it to the Greek islands but whose asylum applications had been rejected would be readmitted back into Turkey.

But because of the agreement, some 14,000 unlucky refugees who have arrived in Greece since the deal went into effect have been stuck in a seemingly eternal limbo: They are essentially kept as prisoners on the Greek islands until their asylum cases are processed. And despite the 600 million euros the EU earmarked for the UNHCR, NGOs, and the Greek government to rectify the situation, hundreds of people are still living in summer tents.

Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have called the migration agreement illegal and inhumane, violating both EU and Greek laws. Doctors Without Borders psychologists in Lesbos saw the number of patients with symptoms of anxiety and depression more than double, and they also witnessed more cases of self-harm and attempted suicide.

Three refugees in the Moria camp burned coal in their tents in an effort to warm up last January; it had been snowing and raining non-stop for days. They were poisoned by the carbon monoxide.

Official reports also conclude that some asylum-seekers have been sent back to Turkey without a chance to apply for asylum in Greece. The Greek authorities were under immense pressure to implement the terms of the agreement successfully, and these reports indicate that many people were deported without due process.

Even Syrian refugees have found themselves in jail and awaiting deportation to Turkey, despite appeals. The country’s highest court will soon hear the case of a 21-year-old Syrian man held in the Lesbos jail, and much is at stake. If the man is returned to Turkey, it is quite likely that he would then be deported back to Syria.

A Safe Country?

In addition to these issues, the EU has failed to answer a question central to the deal: Is Turkey really a safe third country? After all, last year was one of Turkey’s most turbulent: 30 terror attacks, an attempted coup by parts of the military, a crackdown on Kurds, and active participation in the Syria war.

Until now, some 1,000 migrants and refugees have been deported back to Turkey, and that number is considered too low for EU bureaucrats – they are looking for ways to increase it. They found the solution: those waiting for a decision on appeals will be held in detention centers, and another 200 Greek police officers will be transferred to the islands. The goal is to limit the number of asylum-seekers fleeing to the mainland to continue their journey. In addition, more EU border officers will be stationed in the Macedonian and the Albanian borders, to prevent smuggling across the Western route.

Greece’s next move will be to change the law to recognize Turkey as a “safe” country also for vulnerable groups; the Ministry of Migration is preparing corresponding legislation. If it passes, even families with children, religious minorities, disabled, LGBT, and torture victims, won’t be protected by the Greek law anymore and will be deported to Turkey.

There is a wildcard that the EU appeared to have misjudged: Erdogan’s penchant for power and his geopolitical strategies were not taken into consideration when the deal was signed. Turkey’s deteriorating relations with European countries have put the EU in a seemingly untenable position, and critics argue the balance of power rests clearly with Ankara. Yet Erdogan’s government has been threatening to abandon the agreement and open the floodgates for a year and has not followed through – despite several ultimatums, and the fact that Turkish citizens still don’t have visa-free travel within Europe. It seems Ankara has a stake in seeing the agreement succeed, as well.

Still, if Turkey makes good on its threats, Greece will once again find itself with thousands of new arrivals, only they will not be allowed to continue on to Western Europe and will be stuck in Greece. And if this scenario plays out, Brussels will likely hastily throw more millions to cash-strapped, crisis-ridden Greece and conveniently believe they have solved the issue once more. But more money will not help.

As of last December, the EU had only resettled some 6,200 of the over 62,000 refugees stuck in Greece. That has weakened European officials’ credibility and raised anger in Athens.

And what’s more, the EU cannot seem to see the forest through the trees: Brussels has failed to address the problem of migration at its very root. War, conflict, and extreme poverty still face millions in Turkey and their home countries, and the reasons to flee are not subsiding. The European dream is still a shining beacon for many, and it should not come as a  surprise that at any moment, the number of people looking for a better life will increase. It’s time Europe stops buying into the far-right’s fear-mongering ways and bowing to populist pressure. Building an iron curtain around the continent isn’t a solution, and history shows that migration ends up being a benefit, not a burden.