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Expert Discussion: The Future of the E.U.-Turkey Refugee Deal

As tensions rise between Turkey and Europe’s leaders, we asked four experts what the future holds for the fraught E.U.-Turkey deal on migrants and refugees.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
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Volunteers help migrants and refugees come on shore in Lesbos in March 2016. AP/Petros Giannakouris

A 6-month-old deal between the E.U. and Turkey to stem migrant boats to Europe is looking increasingly shaky.

European leaders heralded the agreement as a major breakthrough in March, as they grappled with thousands of refugees arriving daily on the shores of Greece.

Under the deal, Greece can send migrants back to Turkey, and Turkey agreed to stop more boats from leaving. In exchange, the E.U. pledged 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) in aid to refugees in Turkey and agreed to resettle more Syrian refugees and to speed up visa liberalization for Turks and Turkey’s membership in the bloc.

The number of migrant boats reaching Greece dropped steeply in the aftermath of the E.U.-Turkey agreement, at a time when migrants were also deterred by Balkan nations closing their borders.

Yet, most of the key provisions of the deal were barely implemented. More than 10,000 people have arrived in Greece since March, but just 500 of them have been sent back to Turkey, the rest waiting in limbo due to legal challenges and bureaucratic chaos.

Then the attempted coup in Turkey last month sent the deal into a tailspin. Turkey recalled their officials who facilitated deportations in Greece, and more migrant boats started departing from Turkish shores. As Turkey cracked down on suspected coup plotters, European leaders warned that Turkey must amend its broad anti-terror legislation and meet human rights obligations for visa liberalization to go ahead. Turkey accused Europe of not holding up its side of the agreement.

We asked four experts what the future holds for the E.U.-Turkey deal. Elizabeth Collett is the director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe. Sonal Shinde is the director for the migration response for global aid organization Mercy Corps and oversees programs in Turkey, Greece, Serbia and Macedonia. John Dalhuisen is the director for Europe and Central Asia at human rights group Amnesty International. Jessica Brandt is associate fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

Sonal Shinde: It’s hard to predict, as the future of the deal will of course be dictated by political considerations rather than, sadly, the interests of those people who have been forced to flee conflict and violence and seek refuge in Europe. Insofar as it relates to protecting refugees’ rights and providing safe passage, the E.U.-Turkey deal is fundamentally flawed and is not “working.” The refugees who are now in Greece are trapped in a dreadful limbo. It is true that the flow of arrivals to Greece has slowed – of course it has – there is little point in fleeing to Greece to end up trapped. Meanwhile, we are increasingly seeing people take different and more dangerous routes to reach places of safety, with more people having died at sea this year in comparison with the same period last year. This will continue for the remainder of the year if a common asylum policy and resettlement plan is not put in place.

Still more worrying is the impact of this deal on global fundamental rights. We are already seeing signs that other governments around the world are looking at Europe’s response and asking why they should be constrained by International Humanitarian and Refugee Law? We must remember that the vast majority of the world’s refugees are not in Europe. Twenty of the estimated 21 million refugees in the world are elsewhere, in places with much fewer resources and much greater challenges than we face in Europe. They are relying on basic refugee rights for their survival. If European governments continue to make deals, to prevaricate, to breach those fundamental rights on our shores, the ripple effects will be catastrophic.

A refugee camp in the western Athens' suburb of Skaramagas on Aug. 25, 2016. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

A refugee camp in the western Athens’ suburb of Skaramagas on Aug. 25, 2016. (AP/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Jessica Brandt: Turkey could very likely walk away from its pledge to curb migrant flows if Europe declines to grant visa-free access for Turkish citizens by October. That’s an increasingly plausible eventuality in light of Turkey’s post-coup purges, which violate the human rights norms that Europe insists Turkey must first meet. Should the deal collapse, the consequences – both humanitarian and political – could be significant. It would put in jeopardy the assistance Europe pledged to Turkey to help accommodate the nearly 3 million refugees currently on its soil. And if it prompts a new wave of asylum seekers to venture from Turkey into Greece, it could lead to an uptick in human trafficking across the Aegean.

That said, it’s not at all clear that an end to the deal would trigger such a shift in migrant flows. Border closures through the Western Balkans have effectively shut down the onward route from Greece into Northern Europe. That could have a considerable deterrent effect. What is clear is that the collapse of the agreement would be a substantial blow to broader cooperation between Turkey and Europe. To the extent that such an outcome worsens the crisis, it will make it more difficult for Europe’s leaders to keep the continent’s borders open and its right-wing politics in check.

John Dalhuisen: The future of the E.U.-Turkey deal is clearly very much in the balance. All things being equal Ankara would probably prefer to maintain the deal, but the Turkish authorities are very unlikely to compromise on visa-free travel. The question is whether E.U. leaders are prepared to offer it despite Turkey’s failure to meet the criteria set. Some certainly are, but the number of countries prepared to walk away from the deal appears to be growing.

The real problem here is that the alternative they are proposing, with Austria and Hungary at the forefront, has not eased access to asylum procedures in Greece, or onward across the E.U., but quite opposite. The real danger at the moment is that if the E.U.-Turkey deal falls, the fallback for those unable to “quarantine” refugees in Turkey will be to seek to “quarantine” them in Greece, in the hope that the poor conditions there and the inability to move to the rest of the E.U. will ultimately dissuade refugees from coming. The logic of this approach is tenuous – and its legality even more so – but this is the policy debate to watch as the next few months unfold. To some extent we can see it already. Emergency planning is focusing on building new fences and deploying ever more border guards, and not on improving reception conditions and asylum processes in Greece, which are already collapsing under the strain.

Elizabeth Collett: The E.U.-Turkey deal has been fragile from the outset, deeply dependent on the maintenance of good political relations between the E.U. (and leading member states) and the Turkish government. In the wake of the coup attempt, that relationship appears to be deteriorating. The crunch point for the deal, however, is likely to come in October, when the E.U. is expected to make a decision on whether to offer Turkish nationals visa-free access to the Schengen area. Turkey has been adamant that visa liberalization must occur. Given the unwillingness of the Turkish government to make key necessary reforms to meet the E.U.’s benchmarks, however, and growing concern from some E.U. member states as to the implications of offering such access, the future of the deal could well be uncertain. This also may not matter. With an estimated 58,000 migrants and asylum-seekers stranded in Greece, there may not be much to encourage those in Turkey to make the journey themselves. The Western Balkans route remains largely closed, opportunities to be relocated elsewhere in Europe are scarce and reception conditions in Greece remain deeply inadequate, particularly on the Aegean Islands themselves.

Stepping back, the E.U.-Turkey deal heralds a changed approach to partnership with non-E.U. countries. The high price tag of the E.U.-Turkey deal has sent a message to other non-E.U. countries that their cooperation on migration is a commodity that is rapidly increasing in value, as well as a message to major refugee-hosting countries – the vast majority of which are developing countries – that their responsibilities to the vulnerable and displaced are optional and can be outsourced. With European leaders calling for similar deals with far more unstable countries in North Africa, the ripple effect of the E.U.-Turkey deal may endure beyond its own lifecycle.

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