The European Union-Turkey Migration Agreement One Year Later: A Victory for Orderly Migration or a Violation of International Law and Protection?

Kevin Appleby
Center for Migration Studies

Credit: Thomas Koch / Shutterstock.com

Dispatches from the Middle East | The European Union-Turkey Migration Agreement One Year Later: A Victory for Orderly Migration or a Violation of International Law and Protection?

Senior Director for International Migration Policy, Kevin Appleby, reports from a fact-finding mission in the Middle East to ascertain the situation of Syrian, Iraqi, and other refugee groups in the region. From February 24 to March 6, 2017, Mr. Appleby traveled to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Greece.

Athens, Greece – A year ago, on March 20, 2016, a migration agreement between the European Union and Turkey went into effect, in which migrants attempting to reach Europe through Greece would be detained and not allowed to transit through Greece to Austria, Germany, and beyond. Under the plan, the migrants who did not meet asylum criteria would be deported back to Turkey. For every refugee returned to Turkey, Europe would accept a refugee from Turkey through a regular resettlement channel.

In return, Turkey would receive a substantial sum of $3 billion Euros from the EU to care for refugees and promises to consider Turkey’s membership in the EU and for Turkish citizens, at some point in the future, to be able to travel to Europe without a visa. While the money has been forthcoming, the other aspects of the European side of the agreement are in flux and, according to experts, are not expected to happen.

Now, about a year later, European capitals are calling the agreement a success, as the large migration flow that hit its peak in October 2015 – with nearly 10,000 migrants a day landing on several Greek islands – has slowed to a trickle. While some migrants continue to attempt to cross the Aegean Sea, the majority remain in Turkey and beyond or are attempting other routes to Europe. Most have been pushed back, as European countries have shut their borders.

At the sixth annual forum on International Migration and Peace, sponsored by the Scalabrini International Migration Network (SIMN), held in Rome from February 21 to 22, State Secretary Thomas Silberhorn of the German Ministry of Economic Development, heralded the agreement as “saving lives,” touting it as a successful model for addressing future migration flows around the world.

Human rights advocates have called the deal a violation of international refugee law, arguing that Greece and other European countries have effectively closed their borders to bona-fide asylum seekers.  They have argued that by closing the door to asylum in Europe, they are not saving lives, but placing thousands in jeopardy in Turkey and other nations, which are ill-equipped to adequately protect them.

In September 2015, the European Union tentatively agreed to take up to 66,000 refugees over a two-year period from Greece and Italy, part of a relocation program to other countries in Europe. About 13,000 Syrians and other nationalities of an initial 20,000 have been relocated from Greece to Europe in the last year, but estimates of 40,000-60,000 remain in camps, detention centers, or urban settings in Greece.

Surprisingly, only about 1,500 refugees have been returned to Turkey since the agreement went into effect, but, according to the United Nations, all left “voluntarily.” Only about 4,000 refugees have been resettled to Europe from Turkey under the agreement.

The real impact of the agreement has been the precipitous drop in the number of refugees crossing the Aegean. Within a few months after the agreement took effect, the number of refugees arriving in the Greek islands had fallen from 1,740 to 47 a day. Experts on the ground have stated that the drop is a combination of Turkey preventing sea crossings and refugees deciding not to risk a sea voyage if they would not be allowed to travel through Greece to Europe.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which objected to the deal and pulled out of the Greek islands when it was announced, has not gone so far as to say the plan violates international law, as refugees are still able to apply for asylum in Greece.

However, they maintain that detention standards and asylum procedures in Greece must ensure that migrants are treated humanely and have access to due process in the adjudication process. Greece also must improve the conditions in the over 40 “reception” centers in the country, which have impacted the mental and physical health of the refugees. Perhaps most importantly, children must be allowed to attend schools, which are already overcrowded and under-funded.

Refugees other than Syrians also have been adversely impacted by the agreement – Afghanis, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis. About 2,000 Afghanis reside at the old Athens Elliniko airport, with several thousand others at the Olympic baseball stadium and hockey stadium. The conditions are crowded and security is lacking in these facilities. What were once Olympic venues for Greece, open for the world to see, are now hidden shelters for the world’s homeless.

The majority of Afghans have valid asylum claims, with stories of persecution by the Taliban, but have been living in these facilities for months. Many are trying to make it to Germany to reunite with family who made it there prior to the cut-off date, but to travel legally they must qualify for a family reunification program, which also takes months, if not years, to navigate. Moreover, Afghanis and Iraqis, who arguably come from nations as violent as Syria, are not eligible for relocation in Europe.

In assessing the “success” of the EU-Turkey migration agreement, the fate of those who have not made the journey since March 20, 2016, must be determined. There are reports that the smuggling networks have shifted north, trying to get migrants through Bulgaria or northeastern Greece. Critics assert that Turkey is not a “safe” country of first asylum and that those who are returned are at risk of refoulement, a principle in international law that prevents nations from deporting refugees to a country in which there is a risk they would be persecuted. And little, if any, progress has been made, they say, in ensuring better access to asylum in Turkey.

While it may be debatable whether the agreement violates international legal standards, it certainly is a step back in terms of responsibility-sharing, a theme of the New York Declaration on Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, which cites responsibility-sharing as a concrete goal of a potential Global Compact on Responsibility-Sharing for Refugees and Global Compact on Safe, Regular, and Orderly Migration. Some have claimed it is akin to Australia interdicting boats and sending refugees to offshore processing sites and the United States and Mexico interdicting women and children from Central America and returning them to gang violence.

The EU-Turkey agreement, now a year old, is another example of deterrence policies being deployed around the globe, in which arrangements between nations prevent large movements of refugees and migrants from reaching developed states where they might gain protection. These policies, seen in Australia, the US and Mexico, and now Europe, must be replaced by responsibility-sharing mechanisms which address movements collectively, so that Greece and other frontline states need not confront the challenge alone.

Garnering enforceable commitments to responsibility-sharing in these contexts will be the foremost challenge of the two Global Compacts and will determine if they are successful or merely another re-statement of principles which, in practice, is ignored worldwide.

Has the EU-Turkey migration pact achieved its goals? As is often the case, the answer is in the eye of the beholder. For Europe, it has halted the flow of refugees prevalent in 2015, mostly Syrians and other Middle Eastern populations, and has been, in their view, successful.  It also has given European leaders a false claim to morality, as they argue that the policy has saved lives.

But the deal could fall through if Turkey does not get the other benefits out of the agreement, namely membership in the EU and visa-free travel for its citizens in Europe. If they don’t, as is expected, President Erdogan could again let Syrian and other refugees leave for Greece and beyond, creating another refugee crisis in the region.

For the majority of those seeking protection and a chance to reunify with family in Europe, however, it is, at best, a denial of their human rights, and, at worse, life-threatening. The number of refugees relocated from Greece to Europe and resettled from Turkey pales in comparison to the number potentially denied protection. The refugees deterred by the policy still have a five-year waiting list for resettlement in Turkey and will likely try another route to safety at some point.

In the end, the world may never be able to fully assess the fate of those effectively denied a chance to receive asylum in Europe, which is a convenient outcome for the world’s most powerful nations. As such, we may continue to see deterrence policies used against large movements of refugees and migrants, despite international legal standards.

March 20, 2017