Doomed: Five reasons why the EU-Turkish refugee deal will not work

Camino Mortera-Martinez
24 March 2016

The EU continues to muddle through the refugee crisis, improvising new solutions as it goes along. The latest may prove to be the most controversial, and the least workable, of all the measures tried so far.

In a last-minute bid to bring down the number of people arriving in Europe before better weather makes the crossing easier, the EU signed an agreement with Turkey on 18th March. The aim is to return both economic migrants and asylum seekers to Turkish soil. 

The deal, crafted bilaterally by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, took others at a European Council meeting on March 7th by surprise. Until then, the preferred option of most EU leaders – and European Council President Donald Tusk – was to press Turkey harder while offering it more cash to better police its borders with Greece – something that Brussels and Ankara had already agreed in November 2015. But Merkel’s weakening support at home and the imminent threat to the survival of the borderless Schengen area precipitated a quick, bold deal to reduce the flow of asylum seekers and migrants arriving on Greek shores. 

The agreement introduces an innovative ‘one in, one out’ policy: all new irregular migrants making their way from Turkey into Greece are supposed to be returned to Turkey. In exchange for each migrant that Turkey takes back from Greece, the EU will resettle one Syrian refugee already in Turkey into Europe. Brussels will give Ankara €6 billion (distributed in two tranches) to help Turkey provide temporary protection to Syrians arriving in their territory. The EU will also speed up the process of allowing visa-free travel to the Schengen area for Turks, and will open another ‘chapter’ in Turkey’s accession negotiations with the EU.

This deal is the EU’s boldest attempt yet to tackle the refugee crisis. But it is also the most reckless: by putting all its eggs in the Turkish basket, the EU risks worsening the crisis if the deal does not work. Many officials admit privately that failure is the most likely scenario. Here are the five reasons why.

Reason 1: A Greek tragedy
Greece, supported by Frontex (the EU’s border agency), was supposed to begin returning refugees to Turkey on Sunday, March 20th – the day the deal entered into force. Between Sunday and Monday, more than 1,600 people crossed from Turkey to the Greek islands. They join the 5,775 asylum seekers already stranded there. Many of them are being evacuated to the mainland to make room for the new arrivals. Greece cannot send people back automatically: international and EU rules oblige countries to review applications on a case by case basis and forbid them to return migrants en masse. So Greece still needs to process all those arriving on its shores. Because the EU now has a deal with Turkey, the Greek authorities do not, in principle, need to examine the merits of the asylum claims of those arriving from Turkey. They still need to look at them individually, but are allowed to return them to Turkey if the authorities verify they have travelled from there. But all this needs to happen very quickly if numbers are to be reduced. And asylum seekers are still entitled to challenge the decision to return them in court. Meanwhile, Greece must provide asylum seekers with a place to stay.

Greece has not had a functioning asylum system for over five years: in 2011, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights said that EU countries should stop returning people to Greece, because of the deficiencies of the country’s asylum system – including the inhumane conditions of its reception facilities. So Greece now needs to somehow build a fully-fledged asylum system, complete with courts, reception facilities and detention centres, in a very short period of time. For that, Athens is supposed to turn the ‘hotspots’ (asylum processing facilities) located in the Aegean islands, into asylum centres where people can be registered, kept and prepared for deportation. But the hotspots, set up in autumn of 2015, are ill-equipped and have so far failed in their mission to register, vet and distribute asylum seekers amongst different member-states. 

Brussels has promised to send help to Athens, in the shape of judges, asylum case workers, and additional police forces. But the EU has not yet lived up to its commitments: after Greece asked Frontex in October 2015 for help to deal with the migratory pressure, member-states were slow to send resources. By February 2016, they had only sent Greece around two-thirds of the promised 775 border guards. And only Germany has sent the additional fingerprinting machines necessary to make the hotspots work. 

Reason 2: It’s the law, stupid
The issue of mass returns was initially part of the negotiations. But Brussels had to back-pedal on it after NGOs and international organisations complained that it would be breaking the law. However, the deal is still vulnerable to legal challenges. 

One problem is the legal basis for allowing the EU to return people to Turkey. Under international rules, asylum seekers can only be sent back to countries considered safe. This is known as the ‘principle of non-refoulement’. EU law says that if a country is to be deemed safe, it should guarantee that no one will be harmed or prosecuted “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. The third country should also offer people the possibility of applying for asylum and obtaining refugee status.

It is not clear whether Turkey can be considered a ‘safe third country’ under these rules. There are many Kurds fleeing Syria and Iraq, and sending them to a country where there is open conflict between the Kurdish minority and the national government would put them at further risk. And Turkey does not currently offer full refugee status to Syrians: under Turkish law, they are only able to get temporary protection, with restricted access to the labour market, education and social assistance. 

There have also been reports of Turkey pushing asylum seekers back to Syria, thereby breaching the principle of non-refoulement. Most recently, in February 2016, Turkey closed its borders to the majority of Syrians fleeing a Russian-backed offensive in the city of Aleppo. Several NGOs and international organisations have therefore announced that they will challenge the deal in court. If a court strikes down the agreement, Brussels will need to halt its implementation and Europe would show itself to be unable to deal with this crisis in a way that was both organised and compatible with human-rights.

Reason 3: This deal will self-destruct in 3, 2, 1…
Not even the authors of the deal seem to be overly optimistic about it: the agreement clearly says that it is a temporary measure designed to reduce the number of people crossing the Aegean. If it fails to do that, the deal will be called off. If it succeeds, it will then be replaced with a ‘voluntary humanitarian admission scheme’, code for a resettlement programme from Turkey.

The EU is only prepared to resettle 72,000 refugees from Turkey. So if more than 72,000 Syrians make it to Greece, the implementation of the deal would cease. But in the past three months alone – when an initial migrant deal with Turkey, worth €3 billion, was already in place – some 70,000 Syrians (as well as 78,000 migrants of other nationalities) arrived in Greece from Turkey. And there are still 2.5 million Syrians in Turkey. The only way the deal will work is if within three months – by which point the number of Syrians arriving to Greece can be expected to have reached the 72,000 threshold – the war in Syria dies down, and Syrians return home, or if Syrian refugees are content to stay in Turkey. The latter is unlikely. And a peace deal in Syria remains elusive. 

Reason 4: They made me an offer I could not refuse
As the CER has argued in the past, the EU is so desperate to solve the migration crisis that it is prepared to offer almost anything to Turkey. Three months ago, Brussels agreed to pay Turkey €3 billion to stop Syrians crossing to Greece. But Ankara did not stem the flow: in the first three months of 2016, almost 148,000 people arrived in the Aegean islands from Turkey. Now, Erdoğan has asked for a further €3 billion, along with visa liberalisation and the re-opening of the accession process. Unlike Morocco, often cited as a success story in migration co-operation, the Turkish government has a political agenda of its own. So far, Erdoğan has been a smart negotiator: he knows that EU leaders, faced with mounting political pressure at home, are prepared to offer a lot. Thanks to the EU’s anxiety not to put the deal with Turkey in jeopardy, Erdoğan has been able to continue his authoritarian policies and to crack down on the media. If the EU delivers on its promises, Erdoğan will get what he wants from Europe cheaply. If the EU does not deliver – the most likely scenario – he will present it as a betrayal by Europe, justifying a less European foreign policy course. In any case, it is a win-win situation for the Turkish president, which makes him less committed to fulfilling his part of the deal.

Reason 5: We can do it! Can we?
Under the one in, one out policy, an undefined number of member-states have committed themselves to resettling 72,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey. But the EU’s record in resettling and relocating people is less than impressive: in September 2015, EU member-states agreed to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy (the so-called quota system). So far, they have relocated around 890. Some 600 cases are being held up because of security concerns, in part because of how difficult it is to perform background checks on asylum seekers. Even if the Turkish deal reduces the number of people making the perilous journey from Turkey to Greece, EU member-states would still need to resettle large numbers of Syrians. It is unclear why they would be more willing to do so now, when they have not fulfilled the promises they made six months ago. Though there is no indication that the Brussels attacks involved any refugees or migrants from Syria, many national governments are likely to insist on increased security checks on all refugees. Member-states will resist resettling Syrian asylum seekers directly from Turkey if that means outsourcing security checks to the Turkish authorities.

In conclusion, even if the EU-Turkey deal works, it may create as many problems as it solves: desperate Syrians returned to Turkey, and others who are not included in the 72,000 to be resettled, may start using other, more dangerous routes to get to Europe. If they turn to the (longer) crossing from Libya to Italy, more of them are likely to die at sea, and the EU would only have shifted the problem from Greece to Italy.

In reality, however, the deal is likely to fail. Instead of the unworkable one in, one out system, the EU should focus on increasing the pressure on Ankara to fulfil its international obligations to asylum seekers, and to police its borders better. Rather than giving Turkey more money, Brussels should focus on helping Greece to secure Schengen’s external borders. The sooner EU leaders realise that this deal is no magic bullet, the sooner they can go back – again – to square one, and look for better answers.

Camino Mortera-Martinez is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

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