The Turkey-EU deal and the fate of Syria's refugees

The Turkey-EU deal and the fate of Syria's refugees
Comment: The dehumanising deal amounts to little more than horse trading, writes Yvo Fitzherbert, and the real losers will be those most vulnerable.
6 min read
10 Mar, 2016
Turkey's Davutoglu proposed stopping all illegal smuggling across the Aegean Sea [AFP]

On the day that Davutoğlu, Turkey's prime minister, was due to meet EU leaders at a summit to finalise the Turkey-EU refugee deal, President Erdoğan told his supporters: "We already spent $10 billion for three million people. They promised to give us three billion euros; four months have passed since then. I hope the prime minister returns with that money, the three billion euro."

However, when Davutoğlu went to Brussels, he arrived armed with a whole new set of demands, taking much of Europe by surprise.

On top of the three billion euros already promised, he demanded another three billion, doubling the initial figure agreed. Davutoğlu also demanded faster moves to negotiate Turkish membership to the EU as well as an immediate easing of EU visa rules for Turks - something which had previously been offered much later in the year.

However, the real deal-clincher was a proposal aimed at stopping all illegal smuggling across the Aegean Sea, by allowing for mass deportation of refugees from Greece back into Turkey.

Such a proposal had been hammered out during European Council President Donald Tusk's recent visit to Turkey, with him making reference to a deal that would "break the business model of smuggling".

The hope is that, with Turkey readmitting all refugees crossing the Aegean Sea into Greece from Turkey, refugees will consider such an option too dangerous. In return, the EU promised "for every Syrian readmitted by Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU member states".

Alongside the recent announcement of the deployment of NATO ships in the Aegean to stop irregular smuggling from taking place, this deal aims to put a complete end to the smuggling trade before the weather changes for the better, allowing for an increase in smuggling operations.

Already in this year alone, 110,000 refugees have made it to Greece from Europe, according to the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), a level 30 times higher than at this time last year.

While some remain sceptical about such a deal, others were optimistic. "This is a real game-changer," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said. "We will make clear that the only viable way to come to Europe is through legal channels."

Such an agreement may well go against the founding principles of the EU

Europe is desperate. Turkey knows it can push its negotiating power, and Europe will have little choice but to accept it, knowing full well that the EU wants to put an end to smuggling routes whatever the cost.

However, such an agreement may well go against the founding principles of the EU - as refugees' resettlement to Turkey would not be built on the principle of an individual's right to a fair and robust asylum process. Amnesty International issued a statement claiming the proposals made a "mockery" of the EU's obligation to provide access to asylum at its borders.

"EU and Turkish leaders have today sunk to a new low, effectively horse-trading away the rights and dignity of some of the world's most vulnerable people," said Iverna McGowan, head of Amesty International's European institutions office.

"The idea of bartering refugees for refugees is not only dangerously dehumanising, but also offers no sustainable long term solution to the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Sending them back to Turkey, knowing their strong claim to international protection will most likely never be heard reveals EU claims to respect refugees' human rights as hollow words."

Is Erdoğan holding Europe to ransom?

Considering the sliding state of democracy in Turkey over recent months, culminating in the shock takeover of the largest newspaper in Turkey last week, Zaman, Ankara's demand for negotiations on membership to the EU came as a surprise.

Given that Erdoğan has his eye on granting further powers to himself via a referendum later in the year, his strongman model is clearly incompatible with the EU.

Rather, Erdoğan seeks to counter the mounting criticisms of his government who charge him with isolating Turkey further geopolitically. Knowing full well that Europe will never give him EU membership, he is instead seeking short-term results to show the Turkish public as testament to his success.

The most recent summit between the EU and Ankara, in November, where the original deal of three billion euros in return for a crackdown on smuggling activities was hammered out, took place days after the detention of leading Turkish journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gül.

Just as Europe was afraid to criticise Turkey over the takeover of Zaman newspaper before this crucial summit took place, Europe's hands were then tied over the arrests of Dundar and Gül.

Erdoğan knows how to play Europe, well aware that Europe needs Turkey more. In this, the assertive way in which Davutoğlu arrived in Brussels armed with tougher demands was a way to show who is really calling the shots.

Biggest losers: persecuted, vulnerable refugees

The real losers of such a deal are the refugees fleeing persecution and war. With such a deal, EU is retracting from its obligation to provide asylum on its borders.

Integration, on these terms, is next to impossible - so it is small wonder that Syrians dream of brighter prospects

In Turkey, too, there is no procedure to claim asylum. Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, but her responsibilities are limited to those fleeing Europe.

Refugees from the war-torn Middle-East are officially considered temporary guests: this means they are barred from working legally and are forced into black market employment. It is an extraordinary muddle: Syrian refugees have access to health-care, but their children cannot attend Turkish schools.

Integration, on these terms, is next to impossible - so it is small wonder that Syrians dream of brighter prospects in Europe.

Considering the closing of smuggling routes, many refugees will be forced to stay in Turkey. But such a future will come at a cost. If the EU is serious about discouraging Syrian refugees from making the journey from Turkey into Europe, it would make more sense for them to persuade Ankara to take concrete steps to integrate the two million refugees in Turkey.

Otherwise, many may well choose to continue to ply smuggling routes, finding alternative routes that offer a greater chance of success.

I recently spoke to a Syrian doctor who lived for years in Istanbul, surviving on casual work as a translator in a tourism agency before smuggling himself to Greece and then blowing the rest of his savings on getting to Germany.

I tell him how difficult his new life sounds, in a country where he has neither the language, nor any family - whereas in Turkey he had both.

"But in Turkey I was a doctor who couldn't work in a hospital," he replied. "What kind of future did that country hold for me?"

Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Turkey. He has written on Kurdish politics, the Syrian war and the refugee crisis for a variety of Turkish and English publications. Follow him on Twitter: @yvofitz

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.