The discourse of both the EU and these candidate countries, most of which have a long and complicated relationship with the EU, is dominated by mutual declarations of cooperation and burden sharing. The EU claims that funds and border support by Frontex would help these countries register new arrivals, provide fair and efficient processing of their claims, and create jobs for migrants and refugees. Similarly, commenting on the agreements, high-level politicians from Turkey, Serbia and Macedonia have declared their readiness for increased information- and burden-sharing with the EU.
Unfortunately, the disturbing reality on the ground is different from the mutual declarations of these parties. Reports from the border regions show that mistreatment and denial of basic rights to migrants and asylum-seekers have become ‘normalised’ practices at the EU’s eastern borders. In November 2015, Macedonia and Serbia tightened their border controls. They initiated a new practice under which entry will be based on nationality. For instance, Macedonia now allows only Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan nationals to pass through its territory, while so-called economic migrants, such as Iranians, Eritreans and other nationals, are not allowed to enter into the country from Greece. Macedonia has also built a fence along the border to prevent migrant crossings in a decision that was slammed by the UN. Similarly, in Serbia (also in Croatia, which is not a part of the Schengen zone), only ‘genuine asylum seekers’ are now allowed to stay and register, while others have been pushed back to Macedonia.
In Turkey, the situation is slightly different. The country hosts approximately 2.5 million migrants and asylum-seekers, where they are offered temporary protection that includes shelter, medical treatment, and education. Despite the efforts of the bilateral donors, UNHCR and several humanitarian NGOs on the ground, not all of the arrivals have been registered. Moreover, the registered refugees are not subject to law that derives from Turkey’s obligations under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, since Turkey is not a party to its 1961 Protocol that extends the scope of the original convention. Instead, the 2014 Foreigners and International Protection law regulates the rights of refugees in Turkey. In other words, the Directorate General of Migration Management is the only institution accountable for asylum matters; and its duties and obligations have been subject to domestic law. Recently, some reports have revealed that child labour among Syrian refugee children in the textile industry has seen a rampant increase; and mistreatment and violence against Syrian migrants is widely practiced. Some reports also claim that Syrian women are subject to sexual harassment and mistreatment in Turkey.
Simultaneous border blockings mean that people in groups are denied the right to seek asylum outright at the borders without further evaluation of the nature of their claims. As documented by Amnesty International, thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers are trapped in transit countries without protection, facing violence and illegal treatment violating their basic human rights in Turkey, Macedonia and Serbia. These practices have been harshly criticised by the UN and civil society organisations on human rights grounds. People trying to reach Europe are mostly doing so to escape from war and life-threatening conditions in Syria and Iraq. But, there are others groups trying the make their way out from abject poverty, risk of torture and persecution in their home countries. No one in the EU discusses what happens to those unqualified migrants and asylum-seekers in transit countries, or who decides that the destitution of ‘economic migrants’ is less valuable than the hardship of Syrians. Under the current principles of refugee protection, states are given discretion to admit or deny entry to migrants. According to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, states have the responsibility to determine the validity of asylum claims through a transparent evaluation of each case within the framework of the Convention. However, states are also equally obliged to respect the human rights of all persons who are present in their territories regardless of citizenship.
This is where the need for a reality check for the EU and its member states comes into the picture. Human rights is claimed to be embedded in the ontology of the EU ‘resulting from the constitutional traditions of the Member States’. All member states are parties to the European Charter on Human Rights and bound by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The EU’s global actorness has also been built upon the human rights principle; that the EU promotes and protects universal, indivisible and inalienable human rights worldwide. Since the early 1990s, human rights concerns have become the major justification of the political conditionality attached to the EU’s external relations concerning trade, development aid, neighbourhood policy and enlargement. The EU’s latest Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights (2015-2019) also states that ‘the EU and its Member States are committed to be exemplary in ensuring respect for human rights. Outside their frontiers, promoting and speaking out on human rights and democracy is a joint responsibility of the EU and its Member States’. While acclaiming the commitment to human rights at home and abroad, the Strategic Framework condemns actions that ‘question the universal nature of human rights on grounds of cultural differences’.
The good news is that the EU praises human rights as not subject to negotiation, open to discussion or alteration under any condition. The bad news is the EU has no instruments or strong will to encourage its member states or its gatekeepers who are now entrusted to halt the migrant inflow to protect the human rights of irregular migrants and refugees. Currently, the selective measures based on nationality just push ‘the refugee crisis’ away from Western Europe by offering a band-aid solution, while arbitrarily and unlawfully defining those who are genuine asylum-seekers. Irregular migrants continue to be subject to unlawful and inhumane treatment at the EU borders and in the EU candidate countries now entrusted to deal with the migrants’ plight. Commitment to cooperation, solidarity and burden sharing dominates the official rhetoric of all parties. But, the governments who are offered incentives in the form of financial aid and promises of progress in the accession negotiations do not hesitate to subtly threaten the EU or the member states with retaliation by opening the doors wide for refugees to travel into Europe. Clearly protection of refugees is not the main concern in these deals between the EU and the candidate countries.
The toll of the migrant crisis in 2015 has already been 3,771 deaths at sea, 10,000 missing children, as well as 235 km of fences spanning parts of the EU’s external borders, costing more than 175 million euros. The action plans with the Balkan countries and Turkey have come too late and offered too little for 2015. As the mutual hypocrisy on cooperation and irregular migration continues, there are also legitimate doubts whether these action plans will be sufficient to address the plight of migrants in 2016. Beyond the immediate action required to save lives and protect the basic rights of refugees, the EU faces a fundamental question that should not be ignored if it wants to remain a credible international actor. How does the EU plan to address this absurd discrepancy between its professed commitment to the protection of human rights of both migrants and refugees at home? If it fails to answer this question, the EU risks being perceived as an arrogant international actor whose words and deeds tragically mismatch. And, this is certainly a long way down from the dream of becoming the normative power of global politics.