As desperate migrants flee Syria, Turkey has become little more than a stopover. Already home to an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees, the country is no longer holding them back from journeying on to Europe. With some 35,000 migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere having arrived at Greece’s border, it appears a new migration crisis is emerging. Unless, of course, ongoing efforts to salvage the EU-Turkey Agreement bear fruit.
Tensions between the EU and Turkey flared after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on February 28th that he would no longer uphold the EU-Turkey Agreement. After intense bombardment in Syria’s Idlib region last month, Erdoğan claimed that Turkey could not continue to cope with the burden of refugees fleeing the region. “Our gates are open. The refugees will go as far as they can”, said Erdoğan upon his return from a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where the leaders agreed to a ceasefire in Idlib – Syria’s last rebel stronghold.
Through the EU-Turkey deal signed in 2016, Ankara committed to retain refugees, preventing them from arriving at Europe’s shores, in exchange for up to 6 billion euros in EU funding to manage the refugee situation – to be dispersed by the end of 2018 – along with a series of incentives including fast-tracked EU membership. However, Erdoğan claims the EU has fallen short of its commitments under the agreement, adding that Turkey has dispersed 40 billion dollars to date to deal with the refugee situation. Of the total 6 billion euros, only 3.2 billion have actually been paid out by the EU to Turkey, while 4.7 billion have been earmarked for use.
The European Union has cautioned migrants against travelling to frontline country borders. On March 6th, speaking at an extraordinary meeting of EU foreign ministers in Zagreb, Croatia, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said: “Don’t go to the border. The border is not open. If someone tells you that you can go because the border is open…that is not true. Avoid the situation in which you could be in danger…Avoid moving to a closed door. And please don’t tell people that they can go because it’s not true.”
The EU’s foreign ministers also announced in Zagreb that an additional 60 million euros in humanitarian aid would be allocated to civilians in north-west Syria. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stated that funds would not be given directly to Turkey and, instead, would be provided to aid groups on the ground. Distributing aid in and around Idlib, however, it is an arduous task. And while the EU does not discard providing Turkey with more funding, Borrell made clear that Turkey was first expected to stop using migrants as a bargaining chip. “Turkey has a big burden”, acknowledged Borrell, adding that “at the same time, we cannot accept that migrants are being used as a source of pressure”.
However, subsequent moves point to the likelihood of a new EU-Turkey agreement emerging as early as the next EU summit, scheduled for March 26th.
Following a meeting in Brussels last week between President Erdoğan, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and European Council President Charles Michel, the EU agreed to review the 2016 accord. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said “there was a clear focus on, ‘Let’s discuss what is fact. Let’s sort out how both sides see the past and how we evaluate the EU-Turkey statement’”.
And on Tuesday, a four-party video conference carried out between French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, saw leaders discuss the possibility of striking a new EU-Turkey deal, while coalescing on matters relating to Idlib, the need to ramp up humanitarian efforts, and joint action against the coronavirus.
Greece Closes its Borders
Meanwhile, the EU is facing mounting criticism from human rights groups for accepting Greece’s controversial decision to suspend all asylum applications for one month. Eighty-five charities wrote an open letter to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and other union leaders to express their concern. But Greece’s decision to shut their borders is widely supported among EU leaders, who fear a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis that saw the arrival of more than 1 million people. Greece has also enacted a widely-criticised barrier at sea to deter rafts, as well as the use of jeep-mounted giant turbine fans to blow back tear gas fired by Turkish troops at the frontlines.
Five years ago, the migrant crisis spurred the rise of far-right, eurosceptic parties and recent developments threaten to inflame the trend. Austria’s Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, has warned EU states against taking in migrants gathered on the border. “If we do, soon it will be hundreds of thousands and later maybe millions”, he told Funke, a German media group. Kurz also said that if Greece did not secure its borders, he was prepared to close Austria’s.
Support for Greece has also come from abroad. Thousands of Greek-Americans have signed a letter to the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, saying that Erdoğan “is weaponizing migrants who are not even from Syria in order to blackmail Europe. These are not the actions of an ally, a humanitarian, or a responsible global actor. These are the actions of a human trafficker or a terrorist”.
Human Rights Watch, however, has called on Greece to reverse its “draconian policy” towards migrants, including those seeking entry after crossing the Mediterranean. As of March 11th, more than 450 have been detained on a navy ship docked at Mytilene Port on the island of Lesbos. “Greece’s decision to detain more than 450 people on a naval vessel and refuse to allow them to lodge asylum claims flagrantly violates international and European law”, the group said in a statement. “The action may amount to an arbitrary deprivation of liberty.”
In order to reduce mounting pressure, the EU has started offering cash payments of 2,000 euros to migrants in Greece to return to their countries of origin, with hopes that 5,000 people will take them up on the offer. This effort aims to reduce overcrowding in detention camps and is only open to those who arrived before January 1st, nor would it apply to those coming from war-torn locales like Syria. The European Union’s Commissioner for Home Affairs, Yiva Johansson, said, “This is an opportunity to release a bit the pressure on the islands and for the other people that are still in the camps.” The amount is more than five times what is usually offered to migrants to return to their country of origin under similar voluntary programmes run by the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) across Europe.
“Refugees will not return, of course, they can’t return, but economic migrants that maybe know they will not get a positive asylum decision could be interested in doing that”, Johansson said. Aid agencies often consider places like Syria, too dangerous to return to. However some places, such as Pakistan, are considered safe enough.
Meanwhile, and in the wake of the growing coronavirus pandemic, Greece has stated that reception and processing centres on its islands will be in lockdown for at least the next two weeks, as part of the government’s efforts to curtail the spread of the virus throughout its facilities.