"The accord has reduced refugee flows and eased tensions within the bloc but deeper issues have been left unresolved."
Saney Amanpour fled his native Afghanistan for Turkey almost two years ago after receiving threats over his journalism from a warlord’s militia and Islamist militants. Now he is marooned with his two children in Athens. His application to join his wife in Germany has been pending since last year, amid what activists say is tougher scrutiny of family reunification claims.
The 25-year old is one of thousands of refugees caught in limbo in Greece since a landmark €3bn migration deal between the EU and Turkey was launched exactly two years ago. The agreement, finalised less than a month before Mr Amanpour left his homeland, was the flagship measure in a broader clampdown on the movement of people to and through the EU. The curbs helped reduce migrant sea arrival numbers in Europe to a fraction of the more than 1m seen in the crisis year of 2015, many of them from Syria.
The drop in migrant numbers has brought relief to embattled politicians around Europe — but it came at what Mr Amanpour and others argue is an ever-rising cost, both for the EU and for asylum seekers. “The European countries claim it was a success,” Mr Amanpour says of the Turkey accord. “But I say it was not a success story.
It had terrible consequences on the lives of people — including refugees who are stuck here.” The tens of thousands of migrants now stranded in Greece are one legacy of a deal that has come to symbolise the EU’s emergency response to its migration disarray.
The European Commission last week formally triggered a second €3bn phase of the deal with Ankara — although EU members are already wrangling over who will pay for it. European leaders gather for a summit in Brussels on Thursday and are due to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday, in the shadow of a self-imposed deadline of June to reach a “comprehensive deal” to fix the creaking asylum system.
2.5m Number of first-time asylum applications in Europe in 2015 and 2016. Last year, asylum applications fell to 650,000 (Eurostat) €3bn The first tranche of funding offered by Europe under the deal with Turkey. A new tranche of €3bn has just been announced $30bn Estimated spending on refugees by Ankara, according to the Turkish government.
The political stakes could hardly be higher. Europe’s establishment leaders are battling to hold back gains made by anti-immigration parties such as the League in Italy’s election this month. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, has made immigration the central focus of his campaign for re-election in April. He told a mass rally in Budapest last week that Hungarians must fight efforts by “external forces and international powers” to push migrants to the country.
For the EU, the Turkey accord and the wider migration squeeze has been a hardheaded response that has stemmed the flow of refugees and blunted the political fallout within the bloc. “With all the criticism one can have of the deal, it did confine a very toxic situation,” says one EU diplomat. “We would all like to be nice and not the one to block someone’s dreams and aspirations. [But] the situation was such that this was not an option.”
But critics of the EU strategy say the approach is both inhumane in its treatment of migrants and politically counterproductive. “The only benefit has been to the far-right,” says Daniel Howden, senior editor at the Refugees Deeply digital media project, noting how Italy’s Social Democrats suffered a stinging defeat despite a tough crackdown on immigration along the central Mediterranean route from north Africa. “The political dividends at the moment are looking pretty weak.”
The Turkey deal was signed amid a wave of migration that generated almost 2.5m first-time asylum applications in the EU in 2015 and 2016. Ankara agreed to take back migrants who travelled the short but dangerous distances to the Greek islands in smugglers’ boats. In exchange, the EU would take one Syrian refugee for resettlement for every one who was sent back. It would also fund efforts to help the millions of refugees who remained in Turkey.
The agreement is part of a more sweeping EU investment aimed at cutting migrant arrivals and improving conditions in poor countries. Brussels has funded authorities ranging from border forces in Niger to Libyan coastguards. Asylum applications fell to 650,000 last year, according to Eurostat. Mediterranean Sea arrivals in the EU fell to fewer than 200,000 last year — although thousands still die or go missing annually. So effective has the curb on arrivals been that fewer than 1,600 people had been returned to Turkey under the deal as of the end of last month, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
But from the start, the accord has faced scrutiny. One criticism is what defines Turkey as a safe destination to return failed asylum-seekers — something many western courts would hesitate to do, because Turkey does not fully apply the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no developed asylum system. It is also legally ambiguous because it is neither a formal treaty nor a protocol. The EU’s general court said last year that it had no jurisdiction to hear a challenge to it brought by three asylum-seekers. Changes to EU policies since the deal was signed have made it harder for migrants to move around Europe.
A separate scheme to relocate refugees within the EU has faltered in the face of opposition from countries such as Hungary and Poland. Thousands of asylum seekers languish in harsh conditions in camps on Greek islands, in part because of delays in processing their cases. In Athens, the migrants scattered around temporary apartments and public squares speak of lives interrupted. At the Melissa Network not far from Victoria Square, women and children pack brightly decorated rooms offering activities ranging from pancake making to first aid training on a mannequin. Ashwaq, an Iraqi mother of four, is desperate to reach a country she believes would give an organ transplant to her nine-year-old son, whose liver is being eaten away by cirrhosis.
“Do you think it’s easy to get to Germany?” she asks plaintively. Experiences like Ashwaq’s have helped spawn contrasting views of the EU-Turkey deal’s impact. “Some people believe that this actually saved Greece and saved Europe,” says one Greek former migration official. “And some people believe this was a catastrophe and a betrayal of Europe’s values when it comes to the right to asylum.”
The deal has certainly brought benefits for Ankara, despite grumbling from Turkish politicians. Praise for Turkey’s role in hosting refugees is a rare source of international acclaim at a time when Mr Erdogan is accused of eroding human rights and facing tensions with allies over a military intervention in Syria.
But there have been problems with implementation and rows about how the cash should be spent. Seven years on from the start of the Syrian conflict, experts warn that the deal is a sticking plaster, not a solution.
Huge questions remain about the long-term future of refugees trapped in limbo. Turkey is home to 3.9m refugees, according to UN figures. Of those, 3.5 million are Syrians who fled the civil war.
The influx has placed a huge strain on Turkish towns and cities. The vast majority of the newcomers live not in refugee camps but in private rented apartments in urban centres.
“In our city of 2m, we have 500,000 extra people,” says Fatma Sahin, mayor of Gaziantep, a city 30 miles from the border with Syria. “That means more water is needed, more green spaces, more housing, more roads. Everything that we were already doing we have had to increase by 25 per cent.”
Though some have started their own businesses or found jobs, many of the middle class and highly educated Syrians left long ago for Europe. The majority of those who stayed behind in Turkey are poor and low-skilled. They work in informal jobs in fields and factories for low pay and in often exploitative conditions.
The poorest resort to rifling through rubbish or begging. A significant portion of the EU money has been targeted at helping the most vulnerable. It has paid for prosthetics for those who lost limbs in conflict, supported women’s shelters and backed initiatives to reduce child marriage.
The biggest tranche of money has gone to a scheme, launched in late 2016, which provides Syrian families with TL120 ($31) per person, per month. Syrians say it makes a big difference, reducing their anxiety about finding the money each month to pay the bills and the rent.
More than 1m people are now signed up. But experts warn that, though the support is welcome, it does not tackle the underlying problem that Syrians need to gain professional and linguistic skills in order to find better paying work and eventually integrate into Turkish society. There have also been major tensions over how to distribute the money.
When the refugee deal was signed in Brussels in March 2016, EU officials stressed that the initial €3bn tranche of funding would not be channelled through the Turkish government but rather through local and international NGOs.
Ankara complained vociferously and €660m was allocated to projects proposed by Turkish ministries, funding teachers, healthcare infrastructure and support for the government agency that deals with migration. “We gave into the pressure from Turkey,” says a diplomat from one EU member state.
EU officials say they have insisted on strict controls. But delivery has been slow, with some projects still being put out to tender. On the Turkish side, there has been friction between central government and local authorities about how to use the money. A new 300-bed hospital in Kilis, a border town whose population has doubled with the influx of Syrians, has been promised since the start of the deal.
But local officials say arguments between the health ministry, the town’s governor and the EU over where to build the €50m facility have caused delays. “We lost one and a half years thanks to the choice of hospital site and the ensuing public outcry,” says civil servant. “The sooner it is built, the sooner we will all receive better quality healthcare.” Turkish officials say the EU money is only a drop in the ocean compared with the scale of the challenge and the $30bn spent on refugees so far by Turkey.
The refugee crisis Turkey
3.9m Total number of refugees currently living in Turkey —
3.5m are Syrians fleeing the conflict there (UN)
>1,600 Amount of refugees returned to Turkey under the terms of the deal as of February 2018
(UNHCR) TL120 Or around $31/€25, the amount per person per month given to Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Even supporters of the Turkey deal in Brussels and other European capitals hesitate to describe it as a model. Some say it is symptomatic of an approach that prizes keeping people out of the EU as the primary, if not the only, goal. “Currently there is too much of a focus on the ‘let’s build a fence, let’s build a wall’ thing,” says one EU diplomat.
The approach is also vulnerable to shifts in external circumstances. A further exodus of refugees from the Middle East, a crisis in EU-Turkey relations or the discovery of new migration routes could all bring fresh surges. Perpetual tension within the EU could also stymie attempts at more sustainable reform.
Elizabeth Collett, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe think-tank, says Turkey-style deals are “not an answer” to managing migration to the EU in the long term. “The EU will need to do a number of different things — not least building capacity in national migration and asylum systems — to address future changes in flow and composition,” she says.
“The shape of the next shock might be very different, for which no deal would apply.” The clock is ticking for both European politicians and the migrants whose fate they help determine. Back in Athens, Mr Amanpour, who not so long ago was writing stories about fraud at Kabul Bank or the Afghan women’s cycling team, is frustrated that he cannot use his skills or plan for the future. “The European countries need to sit and talk to each other,” he says of the continent’s agonies over its approach to migration.
“They need to find a humane way forward for this Turkey agreement — and for their action in the future..
” Syrians fear change in Turkey’s fraught politics .
The March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement on migrants has bound Brussels to Ankara at a time of political tension between the two. Talks on Turkey’s EU accession, launched 13 years ago, are effectively frozen. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has clashed with politicians around Europe, while Turkey has jailed EU nationals in what their home countries allege are politically motivated cases.
The deal has also become ensnared in Turkey’s fraught domestic politics. Following the violent coup attempt of July 2016, Mr Erdogan ordered the closure of hundreds of Turkish civil society organisations. Among them was a respected charity that was acting as the local partner for several of the international aid groups being funded by the EU money. There was also a clampdown on foreign organisations.
Two major NGOs which had been given EU funds were forced to leave the country. Almost seven years after the first refugees arrived in Turkey from Syria, discontent is growing among host communities. The social tension has prompted a shift in tone from Mr Erdogan, who has begun in recent months to say that Turkey is eager for the Syrians to eventually return home.
The lack of a long-term strategy is a source of anxiety and frustration not only for aid groups and policymakers, but also for Syrians themselves. One doctor now living in southern Turkey said the country had done a “great job” on refugees, but he was fearful for what happens next.
“Where are the free Turkish language sessions? Where are engagement projects? Where are the work opportunities?” he asked. “Here in Turkey we are just guests. I have to know: what is my destiny? What is the next step?”