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EU-Turkey refugee deal: A silver bullet?

According to the deal, any asylum-seeker reaching Greece from Turkey after March 20 will be sent back to Turkey

Published: Updated:

After five months of intense negotiations, the European Union (EU) and Turkey finally inked a key deal on March 18 to prevent migration movements stemming from the Syrian war.

But the deal, hailed by Turkey’s prime minister as a “success story,” is being harshly criticized by human rights groups and experts for failing to abide by international protection rules for those fleeing war and persecution. They are also concerned that the deal might lead to “collective expulsions.”

Amnesty International’s UK Director Kate Allen said: “This is a dark day for the Refugee Convention, a dark day for Europe and a dark day for humanity.”

According to the deal, any asylum-seeker reaching Greece from Turkey after March 20 will be sent back to Turkey, or their application will be quickly examined to determine whether they will be allowed to remain.

Afghan refugees walk through a beach where they will wait to board a dinghy sailing off for the Greek island of Chios. (Reuters)
Afghan refugees walk through a beach where they will wait to board a dinghy sailing off for the Greek island of Chios. (Reuters)

However, this date has been postponed to early April due to the need for Greece to arrange for an appropriate number of border guards, asylum experts and interpreters to handle all asylum claims.

Following the deal, German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that “there are enormous logistical challenges.” The EU will cover the cost of return operations.

For each Syrian returned to Turkey, the EU will settle another Syrian living in a Turkish camp by giving priority to “those who have not previously entered or tried to enter the EU irregularly.”

However, the number of refugees to be taken back by the EU will not surpass 72,000 this year.

These precautions aim to discourage human smuggling by settling refugees in EU countries through a planned and legal strategy.

During an operation last Friday, Turkish coastguards and gendarmerie caught 1,734 migrants and 16 people-smugglers en route to the Greek island of Lesbos, the main entry point for migrants to Europe.

The EU will give Ankara €6bn ($6.765 billion) to help improve the lives of about 2.7 million Syrians now residing in Turkey.

The EU has also promised to reenergize Turkey’s stalled membership talks, and begin the process of granting short-term, visa-free travel to EU countries for its 75 million citizens as soon as June if the country meets 72 criteria.

Since last year, about 1.2 million refugees - half of them Syrian - entered Europe, mainly via the Aegean Sea, to search for a better future.

Criticisms

Experts from international humanitarian organizations see no end in sight despite the deal, because when one migration route is closed, another potentially more dangerous one will be attempted.

What will happen to refugees who are returned to Turkey is also a concern, although Ankara promises to give them full legal protection and to not send them to their war-town countries of origin.

“Turkey is not a safe country for refugees and migrants, and any return process predicated on its being so will be flawed, illegal and immoral - whatever phantom guarantees precede this pre-declared outcome,” said Amnesty International.

Marta Foresti, director of governance and security at the Overseas Development Institute, told Al Arabiya English that “evidence suggests this deal with Turkey is unlikely to work.”

Foresti said refugees and migrants may not leave Greece so easily, and will be willing to take significant risks by taking new routes from Libya, so the policies and restrictions of EU countries will not deter them.

Foresti added that as the EU deal could not provide a humanitarian solution to the crisis, global leadership is needed now.

Zeynep Alemdar, director of the EU Centre at Istanbul’s Okan University, says the steps toward Turkey’s full accession seem very slow, and the visa liberalization date pushed by Ankara seems impossible to reach. Alemdar also criticized the prioritization of Syrian refugees over others.

However, the deal represents a confidence-building opportunity for the two sides to repair ties and show the benefits of cooperation on such a huge humanitarian challenge.