Upon the conclusion of a new deal between the European Union and Turkey that went into effect on March 20, 2016, migrants who fled violent conflicts in Syria and elsewhere in the wider region to reach the shores of Greece over the past two days will be the first to experience its ramifications. Turkish and EU monitors have already begun to process them accordingly, as elements of the international community measure both the results of the reforms and the impact on the lives of those making the perilous journey west.
The March 18 Meeting
To finalize this new agreement addressing the migration crisis faced by European and Mediterranean nations, President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the 28 European Union heads of state that comprise the European Council met with the Prime Minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoğlu, on March 18, 2016.
Both European Union and Turkish representatives had to balance long-term state interests with those of their own political careers and constituencies. Some of the most contentious topics involved the amount of funding granted by the EU and its member states for the Facility for Refugees in Turkey; the opening of more EU membership chapters for negotiations; the official recognition of the Greek Cypriot administration by Turkey; and the harmonization of any agreements with the Geneva Conventions and other human rights treaties.
While there has been a readmission agreement between the European Union and Turkey regarding the return of migrants entering EU territory through Turkey since 2013, negotiations for a more comprehensive strategy and efficient action have only gained traction in recent months.
Addressing the Needs of the Refugees
On November 24, 2015, the European Commission and European Council decided to create the Facility for Refugees in Turkey. According to its press release, “the Facility for Refugees in Turkey provides a joint coordination mechanism for actions financed by the EU budget and national contributions made by the Member States, designed to ensure that the needs of refugees and host communities are addressed in a comprehensive and coordinated manner.” The European Commission will chair the Facility’s managing steering committee, in which Turkey has observer status.
According to this November 2015 agreement, while an initial one billion euros would be provided by the budget of the European Union for the Facility, two billion euros would come from individual member states according to their gross national income share, both over a period of two years. A prominent issue of debate and argument prior to the March 18 meeting had been Turkey’s proposal to double this amount to nearly six billion euros, which it has been argued is necessary to deny human traffickers their means of profit. On March 18, it was agreed that the figure would be raised to six billion euros.
Following intense criticism, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) seemed anxious in its press release statement to assert that this was not a flagrantly insensitive agreement disregarding refugee rights. The UNHCR said that “Today’s agreement clarifies a number of elements. Importantly, it is explicit that any modalities of implementation of the agreement will respect international and European law.
“How this plan is to be implemented is thus going to be crucial. Ultimately, the response must be about addressing the compelling needs of individuals fleeing war and persecution. Refugees need protection, not rejection.”
Joint Action Plan: EU-Turkey Haggling and NATO
A Joint Action Plan was agreed upon by the EU and the Turkish government and made public on October 15, 2015. The summary noted that up to that date, Turkey had already taken in over two million refugees and spent over seven billion euros worth of its own resources to address the issue.
While some common objectives to create improved mechanisms for EU-Turkish cooperation were laid out in the plan, two of its more notable points included the EU increasing its assistance to refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq to lessen the numbers headed to Turkey, and also agreeing to build on the Visa Liberalization Dialogue to ultimately allow visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. The latter issue had always been a key element of any possible readmission agreements for the Turkish side.
The Joint Action Plan was activated on November 29, 2015, and the second EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan Implementation Report was published on February 2, 2016. The report, in addition to detailing the forms of cooperation taking place and recommending infrastructure reform, documented available socio-economic support for refugees, and provided important statistical data regarding migration patterns and other information profiling the situation of the migrants. Based on information from both sides, precise data on the number of refugees that arrived on EU territory from Turkey, when they arrived, and from where became widely available.
It was found that as of late January 2016, 350,000 Syrian children were enrolled in some sort of school in Turkey, over 151,000 babies were born to migrants, and over 217,000 registered migrants were not of Syrian origin, while registration was still pending for over 138,000 others. Of the 64,109 asylum requests registered in Turkey for 2015, over 42,000 were Iraqi citizens and over 11,000 Afghan. This illustrates the international dimension of the crisis and that it is not just limited to the geography between Syria and continental Europe alone.
The situation in Turkey however is particularly acute. Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey Yalçın Akdoğan recently stated that as of March 10, 2016, the number of registered Syrian migrants alone in Turkey reached 2,733,784. Figures provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show that European countries, including those not in the European Union, have received a total of 897,645 Syrian asylum applications from April 2011 to December 2015, with a notable upward spike in applications over the last recorded months. The UNCHR also found that only slightly more than ten percent of those fleeing the conflict in Syria have sought safety in Europe, while the overwhelming majority have left for neighboring countries.
During the European Council’s previous meeting with Prime Minister Davutoğlu on March 7, 2016, it was confirmed that all new “irregular migrants” that crossed into the Greek islands from Turkey would be returned to the latter; the visa liberalization process for Turkish citizens seeking to visit EU countries as well as the three billion euros or more in funding for the Facility for Refugees would be accelerated; new chapters in Turkey’s EU accession would be opened for negotiations; and notably, “for every Syrian readmitted by Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian from Turkey” would be resettled on EU territory. This proposal is severely limited however and the number of Syrians to be allowed resettlement in the EU is currently just 72,000.
In exchange for Turkey’s cooperation on this issue, and in an effort to restart Turkey’s European Union accession process during the last month of 2015, the Turkish administration had requested the opening of five more accession chapters. Out of 35, fifteen have been opened since 2005. Due to objections by the Greek Cypriot administration however, the March 18 agreement promised the opening of just one new chapter this summer. At the same time, it should be noted that some expected the Greek Cypriot opposition to be more of an obstacle to reaching any kind of consensus. While the Greek Cypriots did demand that Turkey open its ports to them, they did not block the possibility of Turkish citizens obtaining the right to visa-free travel throughout the European Union this summer if the appropriate criteria are fulfilled.
Out of the 72 criteria that the EU requires countries to fulfill before visa-free travel throughout its zone can be considered, Turkey has so far completed 37. Many of these criteria take into consideration mechanisms for security as well as common legal practices and visa policies toward other countries. French President Francois Hollande made clear that Turkey will have to fulfill all the criteria in their entirety and that there will be no shortcuts in any aspect of its accession talks. Some are skeptical as to how sincere Ankara truly is in attempting to obtain this privilege, as it has been heavily marketed for years during domestic election periods but never strongly pursued afterward.
The planned NATO patrolling of the Aegean Sea, in which Turkey and Greece oversee their respective territorial waters, is currently taking place in cooperation with Frontex – a European Union agency created to address matters related to trafficking and external border security.
As a result of the March 18 talks, the European Union Commission stated that its President, Jean-Claude Juncker, has appointed Maarten Verwey, current Director General of the Structural Reforms Support Service, as EU Coordinator to organize and oversee the implementation of the agreements in Greece, where he was already managing operations to address the refugee crisis.
Juncker said “[Verwey] will organize the work and coordinate the dispatching of the 4,000 staff that will be needed from Greece, Member States, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and FRONTEX. We need case workers, interpreters, judges, return officers and security officers.”
The Urgency of Efficient Coordination
Much of the negotiations between the European Union and Turkey involve concerns that also heavily affect other individual EU member states, and Europe finds itself having to deal with the issue of mass migration on multiple fronts.
At the recent ‘How to Manage the Refugee Crisis’ teleconference event, organized by the Turkish Heritage Organization (THO), President of Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) Dr. Fuat Oktay said “Whatever happens in any part of the world has an impact on the rest of the world, no matter how far or close to where the conflict basically is.” Although Turkey is not an EU member state, due to its strategic location and proximity to conflicts in the Middle East, the current humanitarian situation requires urgent and efficient coordination from the EU and international community in general.
The deal made upon the conclusion of Friday’s negotiations was vocally supported by the United States administration, as expressed by U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary and Spokesperson John Kirby. “We commend language in the agreement affirming that all refugees deserve access to protection and which makes clear the agreement will be implemented in full accordance with EU and international law… We strongly endorse action to shut down the illegal smuggling operations that prey on and exploit vulnerable migrants,” said Kirby.
Theory versus Practice: Worries on the Ground
Despite the various degrees of mostly guarded optimism expressed at official and state levels over the agreement, many Europeans and Turks alike worry that their representatives are not necessarily prioritizing their national interests in these discussions, while others find that the welfare of refugees is still not being sufficiently addressed. It remains to be seen how much of a balance will be struck following the implementation of the updated approach, yet it is certain that many human rights organizations as well as opposition parties in EU countries and Turkey will be keeping a close watch on how the situation progresses.