The EU-Turkey Refugee Deal is Anything but Historic

by Islam Abdelgadir

10 April 2016

On 23 February 2016 the European Commission and the Dutch-EU presidency warned of an imminent humanitarian crisis. Since the death of Alan Kurdi, an average of two children have died every day while trying to cross into Europe. The Greek state had declared itself on the cusp of being overwhelmed with an average of 2500 migrants a day arriving on its shores.

The route through the Balkan states – the travel of choice for 90% of ‘irregular migrants’ – has seen the Visegrad states make the case for fragmenting and forming their own independent immigration policies. Attacks in Brussels have fuelled anti-migrant fervour; tales abound of rampant migrant-hunting vigilantes and corrupt police officers mugging refugees (perhaps following the example of member states).

On Monday 18 March, the Macedonian parliament passed a law extending the state of emergency in regions bordering Greece and Serbia as a response to the number of migrants in transit. The army continues to be deployed to patrol the fence which now lines the frontier. Similar fences have sprung up along the Greek border with Bulgaria. Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia have all tightened entry conditions.

With borders being closed and the possibility of a serious threat to the Schengen, contingency plans were organised and concluded on 18 March, when the European Council and its Turkish counterpart agreed on a refugee deal after a tense two-day summit. With no time to waste, the deal came into effect two days later. Supporters have referred to the deal as ‘game-changing’. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, has touted it as ‘historic’. So-called ‘irregular migration’ would be curbed, and groundwork laid to prepare for the 3m migrants expected to make the crossing this year as the weather improves.

But is this deal really ‘historic’? Or is it instead…

Widely denounced by civil society.

Under the conditions of the new deal, all new migrants arriving by boat will be returned to Turkey. The condition of one-for-one resettlement – which EU officials have been so quick to lay claim to equity with – is capped on the European side at 72,000. The result is a mass exodus with camps on Greek islands such as Samos, Chios, Lesvos and Kos being drained of refugees.

Moria is the main camp on the island of Lesvos, a hotspot for those making the crossing from Turkey. All arrivals are identified, registered and fingerprinted before being processed into the asylum system. Moria, previously a registration site, has now become one of over 40 detention centres. Many other detention sites have also sprung up in the place of camps. Reports describe the conditions of these detention centres as ‘disastrously dysfunctional’, with a complete lack of access to basic services. The arbitrary detention of refugees, some of whom have backgrounds of torture and abuse, will only stand to do further damage to those already traumatised. A report from the Global Detention Project on Greek detention centres between 2011 and 2014 described migrants lacking heating and hot water, sleeping on concrete floors, and having to resort to drinking out of toilets. It would be hard to believe that conditions would have improved with an extra 800,000 refugees to provide for.

Over the course of last week Amnesty International’s research team was granted access to the new Moria camp. In one of many interviews a Syrian man exclaimed that he had “escaped Syria to avoid jail, now I am in prison.” Other vulnerable individuals who were detained included heavily pregnant women, young children with developmental disabilities and a small baby suffering complications after an attack in Syria. With almost 40% of the refugees in Greece being children, it is highly unlikely that they will be sheltered from arbitrary detention.

The UNHCR, an organisation that sees the EU as one of its main donors, has refused to assist the transfer of migrants to detention centres in line with its opposition towards mandatory detention. Likewise, two days after the deal was signed; Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced it would suspend its activities on Moria. Marie Elisabeth, head of the MSF mission in Greece, explained the organisation’s refusal to be complicit in a “mass expulsion operation” that it considers “both unfair and inhumane.” Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the International Rescue Committee among others have all followed suit.

There is a wide sense of disarray amongst volunteering groups in Greece as the new status quo comes into effect. Hellenic Police on the ground have started cracking down on organisations like Health Point Foundation and LightHouse Relief. Other organisations such as No Border Kitchen have been given a time limit on their activities. Grassroots movements tend to be non-conforming to top-down agendas, and legal backlash against solidarity groups has gained precedent for those seen to act as ‘pull factors’ for ‘illegal migration’. The authorities aim is to have just a few big NGOs and IGOs on the ground to coalesce with the catch-and-return asylum system envisioned.

Defence contractors are reaping the benefits. Frontex, the EU’s border agency, is making arrangements to fill the vacuum that is left behind. There are call-outs for increased funding and more border guards as the agency attempts to expand its operations. Frontex has been routinely accused of turning a blind eye to the serial abuse of migrants. Stories of torture, beating and systematic degradation are the tip of the iceberg. Activist groups from Stop Mare Mortum to Human Rights Watch have all condemned the central role that Frontex is playing in this shake-up.

Essentially illegal.

An article from Amnesty International begins with the statement: “Let’s not confuse desperation for legality when it comes to Europe’s proposed Refugee deal with Turkey.” Senior Greek officials say the pressure to process applications quickly has come at the expense of legal and ethical standards. Maria Stavropoulou, who leads the Greek Asylum Service, revealed that the service has been asked “to change [its] laws, to change [its] standards to the lowest possible under the EU directive.” The deal may turn out to prove unenforceable. Although no technical violations are present within its written form, the deal opens a Pandora’s box in terms of post-fact violations after implementation.

Human Rights Watch refugee rights director Bill Frelik stated that parties have “failed to say how individual needs for international protection would be fairly assessed during the rapid-fire mass expulsions they agreed would take place.” The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), Migreurop Network and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights networks (REMDH) have all criticised these collective expulsions – or ‘pushbacks’ – on legal grounds. Even Chatham House, a pro-establishment think tank, depicts the deal as ‘vulnerable to legal challenge’.

Greece is rushing through changes to its asylum rules in a race to implement the deal. Both Athens and Ankara must make amendments to their legislation in order to begin operations. The deal itself contradicts EU principles from the Dublin Protocol against collective expulsions. Furthermore, pushbacks often involve generalisations about asylum applicants in way that glosses over individual experiences and refuses to recognise migrants as refugees – both actions that violate EU protocol. On 19 November 2013, Michele Cerzone, spokesperson for the EU commission, stated explicitly that pushbacks are illegal: “Nobody arriving on EU territory and asking for asylum can be pushed back or denied this possibility.” Such a statement makes recent videos depicting a Greek coast guard vessel attempting to spear a dinghy carrying refugees especially problematic.

All dignitaries to the 1951 Human Rights Convention have duties to assist those fleeing persecution. However those fleeing persecution are not awarded the luxury of choice when resettling, and must seek sanctuary in the first country they arrive in. In this context, EU member states are citing the procedures directive, in which asylum seekers can be returned with a less than full examination of their asylum claims to a ‘first country of asylum’ or a ‘safe third country’.

The concept of a ‘safe country’ is a vague one in international human rights law, being more an example of political rhetoric than legal reference. Assuring the safety of these countries would require the fulfilment of ‘non-refoulement’, a core principle of international law that is binding to all states regardless of whether they are parties to the 1951 convention or not. The principle prohibits governments from deporting refugees to places where their freedom and safety are threatened, and requires that those assurances be substantiated before deportation.

On 30 March, Syriza submitted to parliament an asylum amendment bill involving the relevant necessary reforms. In a statement reminding us of the EU Commission’s ever-present authority, Brussels had clarified that there had been ‘assurances’ from Athens that the bill would be passed by the end of the week.

The new law – entitled ‘common procedures for granting and withdrawing international protection’ – came into force on 3 April, just in time for the first scheduled deportation on 4 April. Notable articles of the law include article 45 where “Unaccompanied children and vulnerable asylum seekers (e.g. victims of torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence,  traumatized individuals such as victims of shipwreck), are excluded from the accelerated procedure whereby asylum claims are examined in 3 months” and article 60, where the registration of asylum can be made exclusively by police or army officers. The bill does not actively designate Turkey as a ‘safe third country’, allegedly due to unease among politicians from Syriza. Perhaps the irony of implying that a country that clamps down on press freedoms and its own independent judiciary as ‘safe’ is not lost on them.

An important clarification to make is that even though many of the forced returns will be from Greece, under the conditions of the EU-Turkey deal, other European member states will be able to directly take part in the deportation procedures from 1 June 2016.

A conduit for (further) Turkish oppression?

There is ample evidence to suggest that Turkey is not a safe third country. Reports exist of the Turkish-Syrian border being closed to Syrians fleeing an offensive on Aleppo, with the construction of a 560-mile concrete wall well underway. Reports also exist of forced repatriations of Syrians, including unaccompanied minors, and even shooting refugees as they attempt to cross.

Turkey is the only country in the world that has a geographical limitation on asylum applicants. Although it is party to the 1951 refugee convention, it has not ratified the 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees, and hence refuses to recognise non-Europeans as refugees. This can be traced back to political concerns over having to recognize Armenian and Kurdish victims of state persecution. Those recognised as refugees are guaranteed the right to housing under international law. They are also guaranteed the right to education, the right to freedom of movement and the right to work – all rights which are restricted to some extent within the Turkish context. The deal obliges Turkey to make the necessary legal changes – a request that has been flatly refused by Ankara.

The Turkish middle class (which provides the ruling AKP party the majority of its mandate) holds fears that a large refugee population will negatively affect the economy. The logic follows that a draining of public resources will put the Turkish seat at the MINT table at risk. Turkish policy is to treat Syrians as temporary ‘guests’, which implies ambiguity in presence and hence ambiguity in response – ambiguity in terms of rights, and therefore of access to work and housing.

To survive, most refugees engage in asset-depleting strategies, meaning that to pay rent (less than 10% of refugees in Turkey live in refugee camps – the vast majority stay in rented accommodation, resort to social networks or live rough) refugees have to sell whatever they’ve managed to bring with them. Long-term refugees would have to resort to illegal labour in order to continue surviving day-to-day, with no representation or influence over pay and conditions. In Turkey, only 25% of Syrian children are in school, with reports of many participating in child labour in sweatshops. In mid-January 2016, Syrian refugees were granted the right to work after six months of residence. However, regulations force Turkish businesses to limit the number of Syrian employees to 10%, and even less hope exists for the plight of non-Syrian refugees who don’t benefit from the international community’s pity.

For a decade before the Syrian civil war, Afghans made up the largest group of refugees in the world. For Afghan refugees in Turkey, there is no legal recourse for asylum whatsoever. Interaction with the Turkish police occurs solely under the discretion of whoever is dealing with them. In fact, for many, applying for asylum means making oneself visible to the state and at risk of further persecution. Hours after the EU-Turkey deal was put into effect, Turkey forcibly returned a group of 30 Afghan asylum-seekers despite fears of Taliban persecution.

Turkish xenophobia is on the rise too. ‘Suriyeli’, the Turkish word for Syrian, has taken on derogatory connotations – often associated with crime and begging. The narrative of ‘us vs them’ see Syrians blamed for wage suppression and rent hikes. Social tensions have flared as extreme right wing groups have gained prominence in the South Anatolia region bordering Syria. Protests in Ganziatep were staged due to false rumours that immigrants had ‘poisoned the water supply’. Terrorist attacks in Ankara and Istanbul have deepened anti-migrant sentiment from the coastal town of Izmir to the border cities of Sanliurfa and Kilis.

Critics of the Turkish AKP party argue that the deal also cements President Erdoğan’s consolidation of power. Turkish foreign dignitaries argue that given Turkey is host to the largest population of Syrian refugees, it should be afforded extra influence in any Syrian resolution. Turkish foreign policy in Syria consists largely of restricting Kurdish autonomy – this deal simply works to lend further legitimacy to the state violence Turkey displays towards Kurds, and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in particular.

Business as usual.

At every turn it seems the EU fails to address the migrant problem seriously.  Last September Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, announced his ‘decisive quota plan’. EU member states would commit to relocating 160,000 Syrian, Iraqi and Eritrean refugees from the frontiers of Europe amongst the member states. So far only 6,642 places have been made available – less than 4% of the original target. Only three countries – Bulgaria, Latvia and Malta – have opened enough places to meet the commission’s requirements. Other countries, such as Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia, have simply ignored their obligations.

Portugal has been praised for increasing the number of places available over tenfold. However the scale of this increase was from 135 to between 1400-1500 – a pitiful number compared to the Global South, which shoulders the lion’s share of the burden: developing countries host 86% of the world’s refugees. Over 90% of Syrian refugees live in the countries surrounding Syria. In 2015 the EU received close to 800,000 Syrian refugees, similar to the number of Syrian refugees received by Jordan alone, while Lebanon’s population is now 25% refugee.

It is not even as if the EU is simply disregarding its duties to those persecuted or in need of assistance. It is actively outsourcing the problem. From sanctions on airlines for carrying those without the requisite documentation, to offshore processing agreements in ‘safe-zones’ abroad, to the very walls that physically structure Europe’s most external borders and the private agencies that enforce them. We laugh at Donald Trump for suggesting to build a wall paid for in Mexican pesos, while the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Cueta are sheltered behind barbed wire and steel as the EU over-exploits fisheries in Western Sahara.

The EU-Turkey deal follows in a long tradition of EU institutions paying neighbouring states to deal with ‘irregular migration’. For many years Gaddafi’s Libya remained a springboard for undocumented migration into Europe. After Tony Blair’s famous kiss in 2004 joint Libyan-Nato naval patrols soon appeared, along with coordination on deportation charter flights and torture-prone detention centres subsidized with EU money.

In this case, Ankara has won financial and political rewards. Under the deal, the EU will send $6bn in aid over the next two years – with the funds supposedly flowing into education and basic services for Syrian migrants. Methods remain unclear and accountability even less so. Political concessions have led to a new chapter in EU-Turkish relations, with new possibilities for Turkish accession and the easing of visa restrictions on Turkish labour.

Irregular migrants represent an obstacle to the smooth circulation of labour in the common market. With this entire deal reeking of political strategy, our tendency to view refugees as bargaining chips is telling of our priorities. For the EU, that priority is the Schengen. For Turkey, that priority is access to the Schengen.

This deal is anything but historic; it is the logical, business-as-usual continuation of Fortress Europe. Let us not forget the role of race in this dynamic. Tales of US citizens in Greece, staying well past the time granted by their visas, will be ignored by EU officials at best and at worst be slapped on the wrist with a €1200 fine, while Pakistani refugees awaiting deportation attempt suicide. This deal also does nothing to address environmental refugees escaping climate change in Asia or the rising number of African refugees fleeing sexual or gender persecution.

This deal isn’t even an historic attack on refugee rights. The presumption by asylum adjudicators is that many of these asylum applications would be rejected anyway. This deal simply represents an acceleration of that procedure. A way to fast-track applications, clearing backlogs in the asylum system in order to appear proactive – the by-products of which are fewer safeguards, minimal rights to appeal and more geopolitical manoeuvres that do little more than pay lip service to our ‘core European values’.

Photo: European External Action Service/Flickr

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