The EU-Turkey refugee deal officially came into force on April, 4 with the first group of migrants, mainly from Pakistan and Bangladesh, arriving from Greece to the Turkish border town Dikili. The agreement was sealed in March as Turkey accepted the rapid return of all migrants not in need of international protection (namely, migrants who do not qualify as refugees or who did not apply for asylum). In return, the EU agreed that “for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU”.
The deal was slammed by human rights organisations such as the Amnesty International, which posited that “EU and Turkish leaders have today sunk to a new low, effectively horse trading away the rights and dignity of some of the world’s most vulnerable people. The idea of bartering refugees for refugees is not only dangerously dehumanising, but also offers no sustainable long term solution to the ongoing humanitarian crisis”.
Under an earlier joint action plan, Turkey issued work permits to Syrian migrants and stepped up border patrolling to crush the demand for irregular migration which cost thousands of migrant lives last year. As a part of the new action plan, the EU has released 3b euro aid for the Facility for Refugees, renewed Turkey’s stalled accession talks and started the visa liberalisation process for Turkish citizens.
The EU and Turkish sides defend the bilateral agreements on the grounds that these measures aim “to end the human suffering and restore public order” and will be carried out “in full accordance with EU and international law” including avoidance from collective expulsion of migrants.
However, human rights concerns have surged as the actual implications of the EU-Turkey deal have just started to unfold. Firstly, the EU has entitled Turkey to “take any necessary measures to prevent new sea or land routes for illegal migration opening from Turkey to the EU” by sealing off the known routes for migrants. Closure of these routes, including the ones in the Balkans, means that these people would soon start looking for alternative and more dangerous routes to Western Europe.
More lives might be risked at the hands of illegal networks, contrary to the expectations of the EU. A recent incident unfolded between Macedonia and Greece heralded this dangerous option migrants are now forced to choose: last month, adults formed ‘human chains’ across a river at the Greek-Macedonian border in order to ‘safely’ transport children to the Greek side after authorities decided to shut ‘the migrant corridor’. As the temperatures rise, more people are estimated to arrive and push for finding ‘alternative’ corridors for passage.
Secondly, the principle of ‘safe third country’ has proved to be very contentious from legal and ethical point of view. The principle provides the EU with an easy exit option for deporting non-Syrians without individually assessing their situation in a fair and transparent process in accordance with non-refoulement principle. This is in violation of the unconditional and universal right to seek asylum.
Moreover, once migrants are handed over to safe third countries, it is no longer possible to track whether individuals are deported to their country of origin or offered protection. Usually, even the UNHCR lack information on the fate of irregular migrants detained in these countries. Multiple human rights organisations have claimed Turkey is not a safe country, including the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In fact, somerecent reports show that Turkey has recently started to detain and forcibly return migrants to Afghanistan and Syria.
Another concern is that Turkey has taken a seemingly irreversible turn to authoritarianism. Illiberal practices have escalated since the last elections in the summer of 2015. Several academics face detention and criminal charges for calling the government to seek a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue. President Erdoğan announced his intention toredefine terror and terrorism in a statement clearly targeting dissident academics, civil society and journalists.
Destruction of the entire towns and cities in the south-east of the country andpsychological war tactics are carried out alongside the official cause of fighting the PKK. It is now evident that a country which crushes the freedom of speech and expression and violates the fundamental rights of its own citizens will not be particularly keen to protect the rights and dignity of irregular migrants.
Thirdly, the declaration that the migrant swap is a temporary and extraordinary measure and would be undertaken in full compliance with the international law cannot hide the fact that the deal is stricken with legal and ethical flaws.
Every resettlement plan offered to a Syrian in a member state is conditional upon another irregular migrant risking her/his life to reach Greece. For the time being, the EU claims that the returned migrants do not need urgent protection. But, the majority of the returnees face other life-threatening challenges ranging from Taliban violence to deep poverty. If people are rejected protection outright due to their country of origin, who has decided that their plight is less important than the Syrians?
Moreover, EU member states are now deeply troubled with racism and xenophobia at home. Even if the ‘one in one out’ policy works well at the implementation level, several far-right political groups across member states have sworn to make life for refugees ‘unwelcoming’ to say the least. Far right political parties had been already boosting their public support. Their anti-EU stance now goes hand in hand with Islamophobia, the fight against ISIS terrorism and criminalisation of migrants and migration. This makes resettlement and integration in the EU increasingly challenging and even dangerous for Syrian refugees.
The mass returns of migrants to Turkey will not resolve the predicament that the EU faces. The migrant swap deal is based on fatal miscalculations. By providing 3 billion aid and exchanging people for other people, the EU will not be able to easily end human smuggling and irregular migration.
Is it possible that the EU is not aware of the unattainable promise of the refugee deal? Is it conceivable that the EU dismisses the warnings of several human rights organisations and the UNHCR? The jury’s still out. Doing so would allow the EU to delegate its humanitarian responsibilities to other countries in the short-term, while appeasing the anti-immigration public attitudes in member states.
In the meantime, by ignoring the mounting authoritarianism and lack of proper protection for migrants in Turkey, the EU could also close the debate about Turkey’s eventual EU membership, which had always been controversial. If these are the unspoken calculations behind the migrant swap deal, then we might be witnessing the normative power Europe and its liberal values decaying before our very eyes.