As it becomes clear that winter weather and stricter border controls will not be enough to deter migrants and refugees from trying to reach Europe, the European Union has reached a three-billion-euro deal with Turkey aimed at substantially stemming the influx “with immediate effect”.
The agreement, finalised at a summit in Brussels on Sunday, means that a joint action plan sketched out in October will now move ahead, despite criticism from human rights advocates and migration experts who regard it as “short-sighted” and say it poses more questions than it answers.
As of last week, between 3,000 and 5,000 migrants were still arriving in Greece every day, after setting off in smugglers’ boats from the Turkish coast. More than 110,000 used the increasingly treacherous sea route between Turkey and Greece in the first three weeks of November, according to the International Organization for Migration.
A statement issued by the EU at the end of Sunday’s summit indicates that Turkey will be expected to prevent migrants from travelling onwards to Europe in return for several incentives: “an initial” three billion euros to help support the 2.2 million Syrian refugees it hosts; an easing of visa restrictions for Turks; and renewed talks on Turkish accession to the EU. What the statement didn't make clear was how, besides a crackdown on smuggling networks, Turkey was supposed to fulfil its side of the bargain.
EU Council President Donald Tusk, who chaired the summit, referred vaguely to “changing the rules of the game when it comes to stemming the migration flow that is coming to the EU via Turkey,” while emphasising that “we do not expect anyone to guard our borders for us”.
The statement singles out “migrants who are not in need of international protection” as those who will be intercepted and swiftly returned to their countries of origin, but does not spell out how this determination will be made and by whom.
Currently, about 92 percent of migrants arriving in Greece come from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.
Rights groups fear the deal will result not only in more boats being turned back but also in further pushbacks of Syrians trying to reach safety in Turkey. Last week, Human Rights Watch highlighted the fact that Turkey has already virtually closed its border to Syria, forcing refugees to rely on smugglers to enter the country.
Referring to the deal with the EU, Gerry Simpson, a senior refugee researcher with HRW, said: “[It] risks encouraging Turkey to illegally push back more Syrian asylum seekers and may fuel police abuses to prevent refugees from reaching Greece and Bulgaria.”
He told IRIN that a condition of Turkey receiving EU money should be that it reopens its borders to Syrian asylum seekers. At the same time, “Europe should help the region cope with refugee numbers by letting people claim asylum at Turkey’s land borders with Greece and Bulgaria and by increasing the number of Syrian refugees resettled from the Middle East to the EU.”
Rebecca Bryant, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics and an expert on displacement in the eastern Mediterranean, commented that while aspects of the final plan were positive, such as helping refugees in Turkey become more self-sufficient, funding education initiatives for refugee children, and supporting host communities, they would take time to implement. In the meantime, Turkey would be under pressure to immediately deploy more forces to protect its shoreline and clamp down on smugglers. The lag between preventing refugees from taking boats to Europe and providing the necessary incentives for them to remain in Turkey could be a dangerous one.
“Containing people without offering them alternatives could be destabilising,” she told IRIN.
“There’s just a continuing short-sightedness to this vision of how to deal with this crisis that hasn’t been overcome,” she added, pointing out that the summit statement repeatedly refers to “Syrians under temporary protection” in Turkey.
“Continuously referring to them that way seems short-sighted because most studies are showing that they’re unlikely to go back any time soon… so really we should be talking about integration.”