The EU is skeptical of the first rumors from Turkey that more Syrian refugees are on their way to Europe. The “refugee deal” still applies. How dependent is it on Turkey? Bernd Riegert from Brussels.
Shortly after the military clash between Turkish and Syrian troops around Idlib, the last bastion of the rebels in Syria, rumors arose that Turkey would now open its borders to Syrian refugees in Europe. A spokesman for the ruling AKP party, Omer Celik, had threatened that Turkey would not prevent refugees from traveling to Greece. Reports appeared in Turkish media that buses with refugees had already left for the Turkish-Greek and Turkish-Bulgarian border.
The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected these reports on Friday morning. “There is no change in the refugee and migration policy of our country, which has accepted the most refugees in the world,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy. If the situation in northern Syria worsens, additional pressure from refugee movements cannot be ruled out, said Aksoy. The three to four million Syrian refugees in the country have of course noticed the situation and could move towards the western border of Turkey, the foreign ministry said.
EU Commission sees no end to the deal
The EU Commission in Brussels reacted with relief to the Ankara statement. Her spokesman Peter Stano said Turkey had not officially informed the EU that it no longer wanted to abide by the refugee agreement that had been agreed almost four years ago. “We expect Turkey to keep its side of the agreements,” said Stano, despite the dangerous escalation in Syria. The EU would now examine the situation at the borders where it is represented by EU border guards and experts from the Asylum Procedure Agency (EASO).
Erdogan’s long lever
In recent years, Turkish government officials and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have threatened to end the so-called refugee deal and “send buses to the border”. Already in November 2015, four months before the agreement was formally concluded, Erdogan threatened on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Antalya that he would open the borders if the EU did not want to pay. At that time it was about an additional three billion euros, which the Turkish President ultimately received. Even then, EU diplomats said: “We can be blackmailed at this point, and Erdogan knows that too.”
The refugee agreement of March 18, 2016, states that Turkey will take back Syrian refugees who make it to Greece. Turkey can transfer a refugee from their own country to the EU for each migrant they take back. Turkey is also said to prevent tugs from putting refugees on boats and sending them across the Aegean.
The land border between Greece and Turkey and between Bulgaria and Turkey is theoretically closed to refugees. In return, Turkey has received six billion euros over the past four years for the accommodation, care, and education of the three million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the EU, visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and an extension of the customs union with the EU should also be accelerated.Merkel (left) visiting Erdogan: Turkey’s demands on refugees met (January 2020)
The Turkish government has long complained that the six billion euros have not been fully paid out and that the EU is slow to meet the other conditions. The EU Commission puts it differently. According to their information, six billion euros have flowed, but they do not go directly to the Turkish treasury, but were fed into the refugee work through aid organizations.
EU is ready to pay
Chancellor Angela Merkel was a guest in Istanbul in January and spoke to President Erdogan about the EU’s repeated calls for heightened refugee aid. The EU plans to provide billions more over the next few years. Merkel agreed to support the construction of refugee accommodation in the Turkish-occupied zone of Syria – from the EU’s point of view, a big concession to Erdogan.
In the past four years, the refugee agreement has primarily had the desired deterrent effect. The Syrian refugees, who knew that they would be stranded on Greek islands at the latest, did not even set off. There are hardly any people seeking protection in Greece.
However, the EU has never consistently implemented the provisions of the Refugee Pact. Despite massive financial and human resources from Brussels, Greece was and is not able to handle asylum seekers from Syria in the so-called “hot spots” on the Greek islands. The procedures take months or even years. Accordingly, there are relatively few returns to Turkey, which the agreement provides for. As a result, 20,000 people on the eastern islands of Greece are “stuck” in inhumane conditions in refugee camps such as Moria on Lesbos.Protests against refugee camps in Greece: The European side of the deal doesn’t really work
In addition, many EU countries refuse to accept sufficient Syrian refugees transferred from Turkey. “If the EU doesn’t change that soon, the agreement will probably fail,” said the architect of the deal, Gerald Knaus. Knaus is a sociologist and migration researcher in Austria and advised the EU in 2015 and 2016.
Nervous reactions in the EU
However, Turkey, in particular, it’s handling of freedom of expression, has also changed in the past four years. The government is cracking down on independent journalists and critics. German nationals are also detained there. After the coup attempt in Turkey in 2016, the relationship with the EU has cooled significantly. Despite its poor implementation, the Turkey Agreement is the only reinsurance in the EU Commission to ensure that the influx of refugees via the Balkan route, as in 2015, does not repeat itself.
The reactions are correspondingly nervous if Turkey once again threatens to end the deal. The Bulgarian government has already announced that it can move additional troops to the border if necessary. The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Chancellor Angela Merkel have discussed the situation on the Greek-Turkish border by telephone. The Chancellor also spoke to the Turkish President. The motto is: keep agreements and keep calm.