After Brussels, Will the Controversial EU-Turkey Refugee Deal Unravel?

The European Union and Turkey agreed to a controversial deal late last week aimed at stemming the movement of refugees into Europe. The deal, much maligned by the UN and human rights groups, would essentially expel any new arrivals from Turkey; and for each refugee sent back to Turkey, the EU would resettle a refugee who has not tried to enter the Europe. 

The deal was agreed on Friday. It into effect on Sunday. On Tuesday, terrorist attacks killed dozens in Brussels. By Wednesday, it seems that this attack was pre-text enough for some European countries to back out of any commitment to resettle Syrian refugees. 

A bad deal now seems close to falling apart.

While there are many reasons to believe the deal will ultimately fail, its existence highlights the lengths Europe is willing to go to get refugees off its doorstep, regardless of the potential human cost.

The aim of the deal is to stop the flow of refugees trying to reach the EU, which has caused enormous strains on Greece and varying border closures between states on the so-called Balkan route. At the heart of the deal is the “one in, one out” agreement, where for every refugee deported from Greece back to Turkey, the EU will settle one refugee of the 1.9 million currently hosted by Turkey somewhere within the EU.  

More than anything else, this is an attempt to dissuade refugees from trying to leave Turkey. In theory, this would not alter the number of refugees who would reach Europe, but merely how they come to be there. By placing those in refugees camps ahead of those taking the risk to make the journey to Europe, the one-for-one trade agreement hopes to discourage refugees from making the trip at all. It also gives EU countries the ability to decide who gets settled in Europe and who doesn’t, a key point as many Western countries have opted to prefer Christian minorities and single mother households in recent refugee admissions from Syria.

In return for accepting the refugees back, Turkey gets €3 billion in aid, as well as agreements to fast track visa liberalization for travel within the passport-free Schengen zone for Turkish citizens and the opening of a further step towards EU membership.

Many within the EU felt the demands presented by Turkey were exorbitant. Despite the fact that it is highly unlikely Turkey will gain EU membership in the foreseeable future, the agreement to re-open membership negotiations with Turkey is especially controversial and explicitly opposed by Cyprus which is already a member of the EU. It is likely that visa liberalization will also be controversial when it goes into effect, which is estimated to be later this summer. But to get rid of the estimated 1.1 million refugees who have entered Europe since January 2015, Turkey’s terms were ultimately a price the EU was willing to pay.

refugees in Serbia/Croatia

Now comes the backlash

Even before the deal went into effect, human rights groups issued strong criticism of the proposal. In particular, numerous groups pointed to Turkey’s deteriorating human rights record in recent years as excessive force by security forces, censorship and politically motivated legal cases have rapidly increased following the Gezi Park protests in 2013. Furthermore, while Turkey does accommodate an estimated 230,000 refugees in well-resourced refugee camps, the majority of refugees hosted by Turkey live in informal settlements outside of refugee camps, often forced to get by through illegal jobs in less than safe conditions. The exploitation that many of these refugees face is directly contrary to international human rights law and highlights the dark side of refugee warehousing during protracted conflicts.

More concerning is the fact that refugees returned to Turkey cannot request formal refugee status because Turkey only recognizes Europeans as qualifying for refugee status. This is because while Turkey was one of the original signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it never signed on to the 1967 protocol that extended the convention to beyond the displaced Europeans that the 1951 version aimed to protect.

With that legal geographical limit in place, refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria are considered to be guests rather than official refugees, subject to much different protections than called for under international law. Steve Peers, professor of law at the University of Essex, points out the odd set of protections available in Turkey as well as the often tense relationship between Turkey and other European institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights makes the deal legally questionable at best.

From a practical point of view, the deal has also essentially turned the de facto refugee camps in Greece into detention centers rather than centers for registration and protection. This led to announcements by several high profile aid groups – including Doctors Without Borders and the Norwegian Refugee Council – that they would cease operations in these camps in order to not be complicit in the deal.

Even UNHCR is pulling out some of its services in the Greek “hotspots.” At a press conference yesterday, UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming announced the agency’s new stance following the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal on March 20:

“UNHCR has till now been supporting the authorities in the so-called “hotspots” on the Greek islands, where refugees and migrants were received, assisted, and registered. Under the new provisions, these sites have now become detention facilities. Accordingly, and in line with our policy on opposing mandatory detention, we have suspended some of our activities at all closed centres on the islands. This includes provision of transport to and from these sites. However, UNHCR will maintain a presence to carry out protection monitoring to ensure that refugee and human rights standards are upheld, and to provide information on the rights and procedures to seek asylum.”

The departure of aid groups is understandable given the change in work they are now expected to perform, but it threatens to make a bad situation worse. With tensions already high as many of the camps in Greece nearly full or over capacity, the removal of services and restriction of movement is bringing tensions to the boiling point.

Is it all worth it?

And yet despite the massive political and financial investment the EU is putting into the deal, there is little reason to believe it will succeed in stemming the flow of refugees into Europe. In the first 24 hours of implementation,more than 1,600 new refugees arrived in Greece from Turkey, with more arriving in the days since.

The deal also only covers arrivals from Turkey along the so-called Balkan route. As the journalism consortium project The Migrant Files pointed out in their recent newsletter, this route from Turkey to Greece still remains one of the safest routes to Europe, with only 1 in 500 deaths compared to 1 in 100 on the Central Mediterranean route from Libya and Tunisia to Italy and Malta. But with the closure of the Eastern Mediterranean route, refugees are now shifting back to other available – and more deadly – routes. In the past week, the Italian Coast Guard rescued over 3,000 refugees and migrants in just three days. Although most of the refugees and migrants rescued are from sub-Saharan Africa and not the Middle East, the uptick in new departures in the Central Mediterranean highlights the difficulties in stopping the flow of refugees determined to reach Europe.

There are also real questions about whether EU member states will be willing to uphold their part of the deal in settling refugees from Turkey. Under an emergency relocation plan, EU member states were supposed to help relocate 160,000 registered refugees from Italy and Greece who have taken the brunt of refugee arrivals. Yet after a year, only 7,015 spots have been made available by EU member states with only 953 refugees actually gaining resettlement. That does not bode well for the “one in, one out” agreement as it is clear that EU member states do not want these people settling anywhere within their domestic borders. In the wake of the terrorist bombing in Brussels yesterday, this sentiment will likely only harden. The prime minister of Poland has already signaled that her country would no longer be party to it, nor accept any refugees at all. 

Given all this it is understandable that many observers believe the EU-Turkey deal will ultimately fall apart. More concerning is that the deal exists at all. With more refugees in the world than at in point since World War II, new solution are needed to tackle the challenges that displacement and protracted conflict creates while upholding the rights and dignity of refugees. The EU-Turkey deal instead tries to shift the burden of meeting these rights, forgoing international law and European principles to make the problem disappear from the shores of the EU. No matter what happens next, this is a dangerous precedent and one that will likely haunt the European Union in the future.