Why has Turkey always taken in refugees?

EU-Turkey AgreementBillions instead of migrants

On March 18, 2016, Chancellor Angela Merkel presented the EU-Turkey Agreement in Brussels after long negotiations. At its core was a deal to take back migrants who are fleeing to Europe mainly via the eastern Mediterranean route. The EU pledged to pay six billion euros in aid that will go directly to refugee projects, such as building schools, and aid organizations in Turkey. In return, Turkey should seal off the smuggling route through the Mediterranean Sea and undertake to take back refugees if they landed on the Greek islands by boat.

A quid pro quo, which initially led to a decline in the number of migrants. But in the meantime the process has stalled and has become a political bone of contention between the EU and Turkey. Thousands of refugees are stuck at the EU's external border and in the makeshift refugee camps on the Greek islands, in some cases under catastrophic conditions. What are the problems with the implementation of the agreement, has the deal already failed after five years?

(Deutschlandfunk / Rodothea Seralidou) Faces of Europe: Five Years of the EU-Turkey Agreement
In 2016, the EU and Turkey entered into a deal: The EU promised Turkey six billion euros. In return, Turkey insured refugees who do not have the right to asylum to take back from the Greek islands.

Contents of the EU-Turkey Agreement

At the core of the agreement between the European Union and the government in Ankara is a regulation for asylum seekers who have used Turkey as a transit country and who are entering EU territory on the Greek islands for the first time. Turkey undertook to take these migrants back. In addition, according to the so-called 1: 1 mechanism, for every person deported to Turkey from the war-country Syria, another Syrian refugee from Turkey should be resettled in an EU country. In return, the European Union pledged the rapid disbursement of an aid package totaling six billion euros for migrants who enjoy temporary protection in Turkey.

Another component of the agreement, which is particularly important for Turkey, was the deepening of relations between the EU and Turkey. In addition to loosening visa regulations and expanding the customs union, it was also a question of reviving the negotiations on Turkey's possible accession to the EU.

Implementation problems

The concrete implementation of the refugee agreement is primarily a matter for the Greek authorities. However, the repatriation of migrants from the Greek islands to Turkey was made difficult from the start by the slow Greek asylum bureaucracy. Since the agreement began five years ago, it is estimated that around 3,000 refugees have been returned to Turkey from Syria, with tens of thousands landed on the islands. At the same time, the European Union has taken in more than 7,000 refugees from Turkey who are entitled to asylum.

As part of the EU-Turkey Agreement of March 18, 2016, a total of 2,140 refugees from Greece were resettled in Turkey by March 31, 2020 (Ministry of Citizen Protection (Greece) / Statista)

The biggest problem, however, remains that Europe has not yet initiated the common asylum reform that it is seeking to regulate migration to Europe on a permanent and sustainable basis. All draft reforms fail primarily because of the question of a possible redistribution of incoming refugees between the states. A group of mainly Eastern European countries refuses to accept refugee contingents. The voluntary redistribution of refugees anchored in the EU-Turkey Agreement has so far been nothing more than a mere declaration of intent.

Resettlement: Syrian refugees resettled from Turkey to the EU (UNHCR / Statista)

(Petros Giannakouris / AP) Wrestling over asylum reform in Europe
The admission of refugees has long been a contentious issue in the European Union. One solution could be to no longer hold all states accountable in vain.

The EU is trying to support Greece in border protection and the asylum procedure, the European border protection agency Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) have sent a total of almost 1,000 employees to the islands. Greece still feels abandoned by Brussels.

The dispute over possible distribution keys threatens to divide Europe. To the chagrin of Turkey and the refugees on the Aegean islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos: In March 2020, over 40,000 people lived there in inhumane camps with space for only 6,000 people. [*]

(AFP via Unicef ​​Germany) EU Migration Policy - Europe's Failure
The burned down Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos has long since become the code of a failed European refugee policy. Furthermore, people die on their flight every day.

Turning point in March 2020

In March 2020, the EU and Turkey broke up: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came under pressure at home because of the growing number of war refugees from neighboring Syria. In addition, 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an attack by the Syrian army in Idlib in northern Syria. After Erdogan's calls for help in the direction of the EU and NATO went unheard, he then used the agreement as a pledge of power against Europe: Erdogan announced that he would no longer stop refugees on their way to Europe and no longer secure the border with mainland Greece. In addition, the agreed readmission of Syrian refugees from the Greek island camps was declared over. The official justification for this was the border closings after the outbreak of the corona pandemic.

(AP / Mohssen Assanimoghaddam) Escalation on the Greek border
In 2020 Turkey no longer prevented refugees from entering the EU. Thousands tried to cross the border into Greece. The EU stood still in its search for a solution.

At the beginning of March, the situation at the border river Evros escalated, where thousands of refugees living in Turkey had set out and tried to get to Greece. Erdogan's attempt to force the refugees across the border into the EU, as it were, was stopped by Greece by a rigorous border closure. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke of Greece as the "protective shield of Europe". According to Turkish information, 130,000 refugees are said to have made their way to Europe. Erdogan was able to chalk it up as a domestic political success that he had provoked images of the ugly face of Europe.

(picture alliance / AP Photo | Amel Emric) How refugees are turned into a security risk
The EU refugee policy is based on deterrence and rapid deportation. Over the years, dealing with asylum seekers has changed from a humanitarian task to a question of internal security.

The process agreed in the refugee agreement then stalled. Greece suspended the right to asylum for a month, newly arriving refugees could not apply for asylum. Since Turkey no longer takes back rejected asylum seekers, reports of illegal "push-backs" in which refugees are turned away and the right to asylum proceedings are denied have been increasing in the Mediterranean. The Greek coast guard is said to keep pushing away boats with refugees. The Greek government denies all allegations, speaks of "fake news" or claims that the boats will turn back voluntarily. No boat refugees at all arrive on Samos anymore. Overall, the government in Greece is now coining a rather anti-immigrant narrative.

The future of the agreement

The agreement has not yet failed. The EU continues to adhere to this, also because it benefits from it: The original goal of curbing the number of refugees to Central Europe was achieved through the deal with Turkey. Four million refugees are currently staying in Turkey. Refugees still have to wait on the Greek islands and would have to return to Turkey if their asylum decision was rejected.

(Armando Franca / AP / dpa) New attempt under Portugal's Council Presidency
Although the interests of the EU countries in asylum and migration policy diverge widely, the Portuguese government wants to advocate a common approach.

Ankara's commitment remains. If the agreement is overturned, Greece would also not be obliged to detain the people on the islands, against the will of those affected and also against the will of the islanders. There would be a great risk that the refugees would then seek the help of smugglers and look for another route to Europe.

This is one of the reasons why the EU is currently still insisting on compliance with the agreement and has criticized Turkey for the fact that the agreed withdrawals have been suspended for a year. The six billion euros in refugee aid for Turkey have also already been spent.

But the EU, as the escalation in spring 2020 showed, is paying a political price for the agreement and is giving the Turkish President a great deal of leverage. With the refugee deal, Erdogan can also present the ugly face of Europe to a certain extent: The EU pays billions and then no longer needs to worry about the refugees in Turkey.

[*] At this point we have specified a time reference.

(Source: Ann-Kathrin Jeske, Karin Senz, Rodothea Seralidou, Christian Mixa)