Briefing: The EU refugee deal with Turkey

Kristy Siegfried

Migration Editor

For EU member states struggling to agree on the best response to the refugee crisis, the fallback plan has long been to look to third countries to solve the problem for them.

With the majority of migrants and refugees now arriving in Greece after a short sea journey from Turkey, it’s no surprise that last week EU leaders backed a draft plan to offer Turkey a tempting array of incentives in return for its cooperation in managing the refugee crisis. On Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to Ankara in a bid to seal the deal.

The so-called action plan aims to address the refugee crisis in two ways: firstly, by improving the lives of the more than two million Syrian refugees living in Turkey in the hope that they will remain there rather than moving on to Europe; secondly, by greatly increasing Turkey’s role in stemming irregular migration both through the country and from its coast to the Greek islands. 

Officials have sketched the rough outlines of the potential deal, but the smallprint isn’t yet known, especially with regard to how exactly it will be implemented and what safeguards will be put in place to ensure each side upholds its end of the bargain.

Here’s what we do know.

What Turkey is being asked to do:

Adopt legislation giving refugees living in Turkey the right to work and access public services, including healthcare and education. This is considered vital for the vast majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey who live outside camps and are struggling to support themselves through informal employment. Last year, the Turkish government adopted a new law on foreigners and international protection that has improved refugees’ access to health services and provides the right to free education (although anecdotal evidence suggests many refugee children still aren’t being admitted to schools). At the beginning of this year, the government announced plans to grant those with protected status the right to work, but in May, in the run-up to elections, it backtracked on the proposed legislation. There is little public support for any measures making it easier for refugees to compete with locals for jobs.

Improve registration and asylum procedures for refugees. Turkey has retained a geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention, meaning that it only grants full refugee status to people coming from Europe. Until recently Syrians were treated as “guests” and given only temporary protection. The new 2014 law mentioned above, which came into effect in April, has improved their legal position, but still stops short of granting them full refugee status. Amnesty International points out that non-Syrian refugees face even greater obstacles, with some Yazidi refugees fleeing the so-called Islamic State in Iraq waiting more than five years just to register as asylum seekers.

Boost the capacity of the Turkish coastguard to intercept smugglers’ boats loaded with migrants and refugees headed for the Greek islands. Although some refugees report being stopped by coastguard vessels and towed back to the Turkish coast, few have been prevented from trying again, and the majority have made the short crossing unhindered. This could change if Turkey steps up cooperation with the EU border agency, Frontex, and the Greek coastguard, and uses EU money to do more patrolling. 

Crack down on smuggling networks operating both on the coast and at the border with Syria. The migrant smuggling trade in Turkey has grown exponentially to become extremely lucrative, and, as long as there is a demand for the service, it will be extremely difficult to curtail. This has been low on Turkey’s political agenda and it remains to be seen whether the incentives offered by the EU will be enough to turn this around.

Make it harder for migrants to get visas in Turkey. One of the reasons Turkey has become a major transit country – not only for Syrians, but also for migrants and refugees from many other countries – is its lax visa requirements. Turkish Airlines offers direct and affordable flights from many African and Asian countries considered by the EU to be sources of irregular migrants. Nationalities including Somalis, Afghans and Sudanese are all eligible for e-visas into Turkey that can be purchased online without any rigorous checks.

Accept returned irregular migrants. Migrants deemed “not in need of international protection,” who are intercepted by the Greek or Bulgarian authorities, will be handed back to Turkey. What happens to them next is a major concern of rights groups like Amnesty, who point at the Turkish government’s past record of detaining and forcibly returning refugees intercepted by border guards.

What the EU is promising in return:

Three billion euros to support Turkey in hosting over two million refugees. This is significantly more than the one billion euro figure mentioned in a draft version of the plan published earlier this month and, according to The Economist, EU member states have yet to make any pledges to top up the 500 million euros that will come from the EU’s own budget.

Support for resettlement schemes that provide a legal channel for refugees to move from Turkey to the EU. So far member states have only agreed to a voluntary scheme to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over two years. According to The Financial Times, the EU Commission is due to propose a much bigger programme that would recommend states taking in 200,000 refugees from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon as a “quid pro quo” for Turkey’s role in stemming irregular movements to Europe. It remains to be seen whether member states will agree to such a steep increase in resettlement numbers.

Inclusion of Turkey on the EU’s new “safe countries of origin” list. Asylum seekers from so-called safe countries of origin have their applications fast-tracked so the majority can be rapidly returned. But the Turkish government’s interest lies more in the international kudos it might gain from being added. Turkey’s inclusion on a draft list has already been criticised by rights groups, who say it would mean turning a blind eye to Ankara’s dismal human rights record and to the fact that nearly one in four asylum claims by Turkish citizens are currently successful in the EU. 

Visa-free travel for Turkish citizens wanting to visit the EU, and the reopening of discussions to admit Turkey into the bloc. A number of member states remain sceptical about accelerating Turkey’s EU membership bid, according to The Economist. Right-wing political parties that hold sway in a number of states are also unlikely to welcome any move that could see more migrants heading for their borders. Experts have also predicted that such a move could hasten a brain drain from Turkey to the EU that is already under way.