It could be a total PR stunt.
As of this year, 2.7 to 3.5 million Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and others have escaped to Turkey from the various evils and conflicts in the region, while 1 million moved on to the European Union. Policy failed to prevent this, and the EU is now entrenched in a moral panic over what is equivalent to a mere 0.2% of the population. Its recent deal with Turkey to send back irregular migrants in exchange for visa-free travel and billions in aid is not only a human rights violation, but could turn out to be a total PR stunt.
The primary root of the refugee crisis stems back to the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But a secondary root lies in the lack of access to protection in the countries outside of the EU. Notably in Turkey, non-Syrians have to wait eight years for asylum interviews, Syrians only get temporary protection, and access to regular employment and social services is restricted for both groups. They endure severe poverty and years in limbo. Meanwhile, the continuation of the flow is partly driven by women and children following their husbands who made the journey last year.
Until the summer of 2015, the EU failed to agree on preventive policies, and Turkey bemoaned that it was left alone with the refugee crisis while failing to stop the outflow. Meanwhile, the EU kept relatively quiet, embracing an almost laissez faire attitude. But then numbers exploded and borders were practically overrun, eventually collapsing under the sheer weight of the number of people. In some incidences, refugees protested, occasionally hurling stones, replicating the actions during the Arab Spring and once more demonstrating for human dignity. Their suffering added a Ghandi-esc dimension to their claims. Human agency supported by a myriad of facilitators proved stronger than state policy.
The EU-Turkey “deal” refers to stopping and returning “irregular migrants” and “migrants not in need of international protection” in exchange for refugees to be resettled from Turkey. But 85% of all arrivals are from countries with many refugees, so the numbers affected would be comparably small. But then it also lists Syrians, hence refugees, to be returned. So far, Turkey has already struggled to stop the outflow within the limits of the law, and now turns to violent and illegal measures. The deal is thus inconsistent—and in case refugees are returned—highly legally questionable.
The deal is also practically questionable. Which border gates will be used? Are there ferries, planes, and busses available to ship tens of thousands of people back to Turkey? Where will the returned be kept? How will their human dignity be secured? How will the people who are resettled in exchange from Turkey to Europe be selected? Does Turkey have the political will and capacity to prevent human rights violations like destitution, or to change its legislation and extent refugee status to non-Europeans?
In order to make the deal work, Turkey would (a) need to grant a refugee status that complies with EU and international law, and (b) rapidly develop and, more importantly, implement an integration strategy that could justify containing and simultaneously convincing refugees to stay in Turkey. And in the EU, many political parties and several governments need to drop their objections to visa liberalization for Turkey. And Member states that have so far refused to resettle refugees would need to change their position. All of this seems rather unrealistic.
One can only anxiously wait and see whether the deal leads to monstrous violations of human and refugee rights, whether it is implementable, or whether it is a PR stunt to appease the EU and Turkish public. In any case, the stakes are extremely high and the EU plays with fire. If it abandons the imperatives derived from historical lessons—Nazi persecution, Holocaust, and Communism—like the ideals of human rights, it also jeopardizes the very foundations of the European peace order. If it fails, it will further alienate the European people and many governments, and thus threatens the integrity of the EU. If the international community and the U.S. have any interest in a stable Europe, they should relieve the EU of this policy dilemma and also resettle refugees.
Franck Düvell is an associate professor and senior researcher at The University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society.