Five years of the EU-Turkey deal: How time was bought and not used

Five years ago, the European Council and the Commission agreed with Turkey on on a deal. 

The deal was meant to prevent people from Turkey from fleeing to Europe in greater numbers. The zenith of the 2015 crisis, in which hundreds of thousands came to Europe, had long since been exceeded and the arrival figures have already dropped significantly. Nevertheless, the aim was to prevent people from continuing to flee to Europe via Turkey. 

The deal was a precedent for a policy that seeks to externalise the EU's borders: The border to the EU should no longer be at the EU's external borders, but already in Turkey or North Africa. The heads of state have not yet been able to agree on a robust asylum system for the EU. The only thing they have agreed on so far is that people should be stopped outside the EU, and those who do arrive are often housed in inhumane mass camps like Moria.

What was agreed in the EU-Turkey deal?

Turkey agreed to take measures to prevent irregular migration. In return the country was promised billions in aid. The deal also stipulated that Syrian refugees who nevertheless reached the Greek islands irregularly from Turkey would be returned to Turkey. For each person returned, one person who had fled Syria was to be resettled from Turkey to the EU. This part of the deal was never actually implemented. Between the first quarter of 2016 and the first quarter of 2020, approximately 27,000 Syrian refugees were resettled from all over Turkey to EU countries. Especially in the last year, hardly any people were resettled. So in recent years, less than 1% of Syrian refugees in Turkey have had the opportunity to come to Europe legally.

In return for the prevention of flight from Turkey, Ankara was also to receive accelerated visa facilitation for its citizens. However, these visa facilitations do not exist until today, to which Turkey regularly refers. In fact, Turkey has never met all the conditions for visa facilitation. However, since complying with the rules was not realistic even five years ago, one can assume that Turkey expects the facilitations as a bonus away from the usual procedure.

The most important and expensive point of the agreement was the payment of a total of 6 billion euros for various projects to support Syrian refugees in Turkey. Contrary to some claims, the money was actually flowing and much of it had already arrived. 

The commitments made at the time show, above all, that the Heads of State and Government were prepared to make very large concessions in order for the deal to take effect. The European Parliament was not involved in the negotiation of the deal. 

Legally questionable decisions

The decisions to implement the EU-Turkey deal were already legally questionable. The Greek government under Alexis Tsipras at the time was pressured into pushing a bad law through its parliament so that the deal could be implemented. Greece recognised Turkey as a "safe third countryso that it is easier to deport people there. At the same time, thousands of people have fled and are still fleeing from Turkey itself due to political persecution. Turkey is not only not a safe country for all refugees. It is not even a safe country for many of its own citizens. Greece had little choice at the time, as they were threatened that closing the northern Macedonian border would leave them alone with the refugees crossing Europe.

By returning Syrians to Turkey, the EU is also supporting a policy that ultimately amounts to deportations to Syria, because it expects Turkey to "take all necessary measures to prevent new sea or land routes from opening up to illegal migration“".

In the meantime, European authorities are systematically pushing people from Greece to Turkey or deporting them illegally. This is an attempt to reduce dependence on Turkey at the expense of human rights and dignity and to decimate the number of people seeking protection in Europe.  In Turkey, on the other hand, war refugees from Syria are threatened with deportation to their home country. This is life-threatening for many. The people are not only threatened by the acts of war, but also by the torture prisons of the Assad regime, in which tens of thousands of people disappeared. Among them also people, who returned to Syria, or forced to return. 

The fact that fewer people are actually coming at the moment is not just because of the EU-Turkey deal. It is because of the pandemic and the systematic pushback by the Greek authorities. Fewer people are not coming because of the deal, but because EU states are trampling fundamental human rights underfoot.

As a result of the deal, Turkey also sealed off the Syrian border, so the EU-Turkey deal also contributed to making it increasingly difficult to flee the Syrian civil war.

Europe makes itself vulnerable to blackmail 

In the last five years, Turkey has witnessed the European Union's capacity for blackmail on many occasions. Turkey has imprisoned opposition activists and journalists, marched with German Leopard-2 tanks in Syria and is fighting minorities in its own country. Particularly with regard to the invasion of Syria, many EU officials have been silent. Criticism of serious human rights violations is voiced, but it rarely has real political consequences, for fear that Turkey could open the borders to Greece and Bulgaria. 

The fact that the European Union still did not have a robust asylum system based on the rule of law, years after it bought itself time with the Turkey deal, took its revenge in March 2020. I myself experienced this on the ground in Lesbos a year ago. 

After Erdoğan announced an opening of the border and suddenly there were several thousand people at the external border, Greece reacted with force and simply suspended the fundamental right to asylum. That was unlawful. The Greek coast guard started shooting in the direction of rubber dinghies full of people instead of rescuing them. Boats were left in distress for hours instead of intervening immediately. A girl drowned while trying to get to Lesbos, although they could have been saved. The Greek police fired live ammunition at people and very likely killed several people in the process, for example Muhammad Gulzar. 

These actions were justified at the time with military rhetoric. The President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, described Greece as a "Protective Shield of Europe." 

The government in Ankara realised very well at the time that it could blackmail the EU by allowing a few thousand people to cross towards the EU border or even taking them there in buses. It's no wonder that on the international stage no one takes seriously a community of states that allows itself to be blackmailed by the arrival of refugees on a few rubber dinghies. 

In the EU, they try to justify this policy because they are afraid of a new 2015. But the many millions of people who are sitting on packed suitcases in Turkey to come to the EU don't exist. When Erdoğan opened the borders a year ago, not hundreds of thousands came, but only a few thousand. Among them, hardly anyone was from Syria, although Turkey is home to more than 3.5 million Syrians. Most of the refugees in Turkey live near the Syrian border. They wish to return or have settled in Turkey in recent years. Many have learned the language and found work. Most of these people do not want to go to the EU at all. 

Not everything is bad about the deal

Not everything about the deal is bad. And of course it's good for the EU to help refugees in Turkey. The EU-Turkey deal contains a list of important commitments, some of which are good and necessary. These include financial support to give Syrian refugees access to education, healthcare and the labour market. It has been made easier to allocate the funds needed for this purpose. Much of the pledged six billion euros has been launched in the meantime. 

With these funds, hundreds of thousands of children from Syria were able to attend school, people were able to see a doctor or were helped to learn the language. Much of the money went directly to aid organizations, even though the Turkish government pushed for more money to be transferred to government agencies in Turkey. Nor should the funding of the Turkish Ministry of Health and Education be condemned per se.

One of the problems with the deal, however, is that the lack of parliamentary oversight and accountability means it is not clear which projects have been successful and how.

Unfortunately, some sensible aspects of the EU-Turkey deal, such as the creation of legal escape routes, have not been adequately implemented. And despite the money from the EU, the reception conditions for refugees often do not meet humanitarian standards and real access to state services or the labour market exists for many only on paper, but not in reality. 

And what was to come next?

There is a lot of talk about the causes of flight, but they are rarely the focus of action. Instead, European asylum policy is too often shaped by short-term goals. For a future agreement, it would make sense to keep the promises of legal escape routes and redistribution and to focus on the causes of flight from Turkey instead of dysfunctional return mechanisms. The aim must be that people who have fled to Turkey do not have to flee to Europe first in order to finally be safe. However, we will not achieve this by violating human rights at the external borders, but by supporting Turkey in creating prospects for refugees. 

That is why the successful programmes in Turkey should be continued and expanded. It would be important that they not only reach people from Syria, but also the many hundreds of thousands of other refugees who come from Afghanistan, for example. One has bought time with the deal as Europe above all at the expense of human rights. Tragically, this time has not been used, but five years later the situation is worse than before: human rights violations at the external borders have now become systematic and the mass camps at the external borders serve more as a deterrent than as humane accommodation for those seeking protection. Nor has a system for the redistribution of protection seekers in the EU or the creation of legal escape routes been achieved since 2016. According to UN figures, the number of refugees worldwide has risen by around 15 million people in the last five years, despite all protestations about combating the causes of flight.