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

Near Breaking Point

The dire situation in Greece and turmoil in Turkey are making the current refugee deal unsustainable.

The EU-Turkey deal was inked in March to help stem the flow of refugees to Europe. Nine months later, little has actually been enforced. The EU’s key plan to contain migration is on the brink of failure.


© REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

Burns cover the face and body of nine-year-old Amina. They’re from when a bomb fell on her house in Aleppo, Syria. Leila, 10, still has nightmares of Islamic State fighters entering her Yazidi village in Sinjar in Northern Iraq. Busra, 16, has tried to commit suicide twice already. She can’t stand living in a camp on this Greek island anymore. She misses her brother back in Syria.

The three girls don’t know each other, but they have something in common – they live in fear of being deported. And they are living in limbo.

Along with their families, the girls are among the more than 21,000 people that arrived to Lesbos after March 2015, when the European Union and Ankara sealed a deal to send migrants back to Turkey, preventing them from traveling onward to the mainland or Western Europe.

According to the conditions of the EU-Turkey deal, the European Union will have to give Turkey another 3 billion euros on top of the 3 billion originally agreed – money to be spent on improving refugees’ living conditions in the country. The pact also involved a complex exchange agreement: For every Syrian refugee sent back to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian refugee will be resettled directly from Turkey to an EU country. In return, the EU would liberalize visa requirements for Turkish nationals.

Nine months later, both sides have struggled to stick to the deal.

The influx of migrants has indeed slowed considerably compared to 2015. Last month, 2,000 migrants arrived on all of the Greek islands, around a third less than the previous two months. In November 2015, around 100,000 people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Africa and elsewhere arrived.

But thousands keep arriving in Greece. Most didn’t have a choice, as half of their families were already in Europe. And others were so destitute that they took the chance anyway. In the camps, many – like Amina, the nine-year-old burn victim – need serious medical attention. According to the UNHCR’s latest data, only a small fraction of the refugees living in Turkey has actually been relocated to Europe – just 4,000 so far.

Is Turkey “Safe”?

It’s difficult to consider Turkey a “safe country,” either. Its asylum-system is barely three years old, and its infrastructure cannot serve three million refugees. Turkey still denies full refugee status to non-Europeans. And the failed coup six months ago has led to a sweeping crackdown and a purge, with thousands arrested, fired and persecuted. The EU Parliament recently voted to freeze Turkey’s EU accession talks “due to concerns about the human rights violations.” The vote was non-binding, but it sent a clear signal to Ankara.

It’s another sign that discourse between the EU and Turkey has turned sour. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to threaten to tear up the deal and send three million migrants streaming toward the Greek islands if the EU doesn’t pay the rest of the 6 billion euros it promised, and if visa-free travel isn’t granted soon.

But even with the six billion euros, refugees’ living conditions in Turkey are still difficult. Those who make it out of camps face discrimination, high rents, and low-paid jobs. For them, Europe still seems like the only viable choice on the horizon.

Meanwhile, the number of asylum-seekers in the region keeps increasing. Turkey is already hosting more than three million refugees. With the help of Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been destroying the rebel stronghold of East Aleppo. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban’s power has been growing. Libya is in chaos. Egypt’s economy is teetering on the brink of collapse, too, raising the possibility of the Arab world’s most populous state becoming a new source of refugees.

Stricter controls in the Balkans have shut down the main route for migrants. But the number of those now trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean and Italy, a much deadlier route, has been rising. Conditions in various African countries are deteriorating quickly, spurring a new wave of migrants.

So far, only 754 asylum-seekers have been deported to Turkey. Human rights organizations like Amnesty International and UNHCR interviewed deportees after they arrived to Turkey and found that many weren’t even allowed by the Greek authorities to apply for asylum. The media recently highlighted the cases of two men, a homosexual Syrian and a Christian Syrian likely to face persecution in the Middle East, who were scheduled for deportation to Turkey.

More EU Help Needed

Greece is struggling under the weight of a massive backlog of asylum cases, and also under EU pressure to increase deportations. Asylum cases are taking far too long to process. Greek immigration agencies are understaffed and overworked: Only 700 people are working on asylum applications that require days of interviews, investigations and paperwork. The cash-strapped Greek government can’t hire more asylum application processors, either, due to the conditions on the international loans that are keeping the country afloat.

The backlog has now reached around 60,000 applications, not including the appeals of asylums seekers whose applications are rejected. The Greek Ministry of Immigration has asked for EU help, and Brussels promised 400 staffers. But only 36 have arrived so far. The Belgian staff left two weeks ago, fearing for their safety after shots were fired in one of the refugee camps.

Amid the turmoil, refugees are growing increasingly restive. Around 40,000 are living in tents as the rainy days and cold nights of the Greek winter approach. Last week on Lesbos, an Iraqi woman and a child from Iraq died after their gas canister used for cooking and heat exploded.

People on Lesbos often cite a Greek proverb when they hear their leaders claiming the EU’s deal with Turkey is solving the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War: it’s like hiding the dust under the carpet.