The Anniversary of the EU-Turkey Agreement

On March 18, the EU and Turkey will mark the one-year anniversary of their joint statement, which sought to stem the flows of asylum-seekers and migrants crossing from Turkey’s shores to the Greek islands. But as this anniversary approaches, Refugees International believes there little cause to celebrate and much more cause for concern. While EU leaders have presented the policy as a success, pointing to the significant decrease in the number of arrivals on the Greek islands since March 2016, the policy has also left thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers stranded in Greece in shocking conditions and has eroded the right to seek asylum in Europe.

The EU-Turkey statement provides that, in exchange for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the EU, a revival of negotiations for Turkey’s accession to the EU, and billions of Euros in financial assistance to Turkey, Greece would return people who arrived irregularly on its shores after March 20, 2016. This includes all irregular migrants and asylum-seekers for whom Turkey is considered a safe country. The agreement also provides that for every Syrian who traveled irregularly from Turkey to a Greek island, another Syrian would be resettled to the EU.

To implement the EU-Turkey policy, the Greek government left thousands of those who arrived after the agreement stranded on the islands in overcrowded, unsafe, and unsanitary conditions. These appalling conditions on the Greek islands and mainland. were especially clear and acute this winter, with images of people sleeping in tents in the snow surfaced online and in the media. The lack of a humane and organized response to the situation of asylum-seekers and migrants in Greece – by all of the actors involved – is all the more inexcusable given the hundreds of millions of Euros provided by the EU to the Greek government and humanitarian organizations working in the country.

The EU and its member states must provide humane solutions and safe pathways to protection.

Turkey, the only country in the Council of Europe to apply the 1951 Refugee Convention only to Europeans, is already hosting more than three million refugees, more than any other country in the world. Protection for asylum-seekers and refugees in Turkey vary widely, with many non-Syrians continuing to face obstacles in accessing work and adequate housing and education. In a recent report, Refugees International documented the hardships faced by non-Syrian asylum-seekers and refugees in Turkey and the lack of durable solutions for them there. RI continues to urge the European Union and its member states to refrain from returning asylum-seekers to Turkey, whether they are from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, or another country.

Under the EU-Turkey agreement, the EU is to provide three billion euros to Turkey – of which 750 million have been disbursed – to help it provide for refugees, with another three billion euros to be delivered by the end of 2018. While financial assistance that effectively improves the lives of refugees and asylum-seekers of all nationalities is welcome, it is not a substitute for resettling people from Turkey. The resettlement scheme laid out in the EU-Turkey agreement is based on the flawed premise that for every Syrian returned from the Greek islands to Turkey, another Syrian will be resettled to the EU. As of February 27 of this year, 3,565 refugees had been resettled to the EU under that arrangement. That is not enough. EU countries should significantly increase their pledges for resettlement from Turkey and accept refugees regardless of their nationality, and remove the link between returns and resettlement. 

While arrivals and deaths of people crossing the Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece have indeed decreased, 2016 was the deadliest year on record for Mediterranean Sea crossings.

While arrivals and deaths of people crossing the Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece have indeed decreased, 2016 was the deadliest year on record for Mediterranean Sea crossings, with more than 5,000 deaths (despite the much lower number of arrivals compared to 2015). The Mediterranean continues to be the world’s deadliest route for migrants and asylum-seekers arriving by sea, with 522 people recorded dead or missing so far in 2017, out of a total of 784 worldwide. These figures point to the EU’s deeply flawed approach to asylum and its choice of closing borders over providing safe and legal routes to protection.

The EU should not use the EU-Turkey statement as a blueprint for its cooperation with other countries, particularly with Libya, where severe and widespread abuses against asylum-seekers and migrants have been documented. 

At a time when a record number of people are displaced from their homes – the majority in other parts of their own country or in a country neighboring their own – and when the United States is turning its back on refugees, EU leadership is sorely needed. The EU and its member states must provide humane solutions and safe pathways to protection.