'Disaster in the Making' The Many Failures of the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal

Many viewed it with skepticism from the start and now, the Brussels-Ankara refugee deal is in danger of collapse. Refugees are being locked up in Turkey and it looks as though the best educated Syrians are not being allowed to continue to Europe.

Migrants standing behind a fence at a refugee camp in southeastern Turkey.

Migrants standing behind a fence at a refugee camp in southeastern Turkey.

If there is one thing Ayasha Nour never wanted to experience again, it was to be locked up without knowing what was happening to her. Nour, a French teacher from Damascus, spent 20 days in Moria, a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. She slept on the ground in an overcrowded tent and it was cold with not enough to eat. She repeatedly asked the Greek officials when a decision would be made on her asylum application, but they kept putting her off. "Sometimes they would say a week, sometimes a month and sometimes a year," says Nour.

At the end of April, the young Syrian gave up hope of ever reaching northern Europe, so she decided to return to Turkey voluntarily. Officers with Frontex, the European Union's border protection agency, accompanied Nour and 11 other Syrian refugees on the flight from Lesbos to southeastern Turkey. According to Nour, before she left Lesbos officials had promised that she could apply for asylum in Turkey and would be allowed to move around freely there. But immediately after landing in Turkey, she and the other returning refugees were taken away -- as if they were criminals, says Nour.

She has now been in an internment camp in Düziçi, a city on the Turkish-Syrian border, for four weeks. "It's like Moria, only worse," the Syrian woman says on the telephone. She doesn't want us to use her real name for fear of reprisals from the Turkish guards.

The internment of Syrian refugees raises new doubts over the controversial refugee agreement between Europe and Turkey. Indeed, it appears that the deal is on the verge of falling apart, only two months after the program began.

The EU had promised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan €6 billion ($6.7 billion) and political concessions if his government would take back migrants who reach Greece via Turkey. One of the commitments Ankara made in a letter to the European Commission was to provide temporary protection to Syrian returnees.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has praised the deal with Turkey as a humane alternative to sealing off Europe's internal borders. But the fact that the first Syrians who were brought to Turkey from Greece as part of the new agreement were taken directly to a detention center is not only a violation of international refugee law, but also an affront to Merkel.

Food Full of Insects

As in the dispute over the promise of visa-free travel in the EU for Turkish citizens, Erdogan's message is clear: We may have signed a pact, but I determine the rules of the game. This also applies to the selection of refugees Turkey sends to the European Union, which includes a conspicuously large number of "serious medical cases."

Hundreds of refugees are confined in Düziçi. Unlike Nour, many of them didn't make it to Greece. Some were arbitrarily arrested in Turkey, while others were detained for begging on the streets or selling tissues, reports the Turkish human rights organization Mülteci-Der.

Nour was trying to reach London to join her husband. She is pregnant, and yet she is not permitted to leave the Düziçi camp to see a doctor or meet with an attorney. "I don't know what will happen next or when I will finally be released," she says.

Migrants sleeping at the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Migrants sleeping at the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.

A woman from Aleppo who was deported from Lesbos to Düziçi with her four children complains that the cells are overcrowded and the food is full of insects. Her son is having respiratory problems, she says. A fellow detainee tried to commit suicide with a shard of glass. "Düziçi is hell," she says in a broken voice. The Turkish authorities claim that the Syrians are released once security checks are complete.

Human rights organizations have warned that the rights of migrants returning from Greece to Turkey are not guaranteed. The Pakistanis, Afghans and Algerians who were deported from the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios in early April were almost all sent to a deportation center in Kirklareli on the Turkish-Bulgarian border.

The center is off-limits to journalists, aid organizations and attorneys. Cornelia Ernst, a member of the European Parliament from Germany's Left Party, visited the facility in early May and said that conditions there were "shocking" and that detainees are often only permitted to leave their cells for a few minutes every day. According to Mülteci-Der, migrants at the camp are systematically hampered in their efforts to gain access to asylum procedures.

Qualms about Turkey

The latest reports on the arrests of Syrians have even raised doubts among supporters of the deal. The internment of people entitled to protection calls a central premise of the treaty into question, says Gerald Knaus, chairman of the international think tank European Stability Initiative -- namely that "refugees who are deported from Greece are safe in Turkey." Knaus' organization played an instrumental role in developing the deal with Turkey and advised EU countries.

Brussels expected that Greece would use expedited procedures to send migrants back to Turkey within a few days. But nothing is happening quickly at the moment, primarily because Greek asylum officials and judges are having qualms about recognizing Turkey as a "safe third country," as demanded by Brussels. They apparently share the concerns of human rights activists and legal experts, who have repeatedly pointed to the precarious living conditions among migrants in Turkey. "I have faith in the independence of the appeals committee," says Ska Keller, deputy Green Party leader in the European Parliament, who was in Lesbos recently.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the claim that Turkey is a safe place for refugees. According to Amnesty International, Turkish authorities have deported hundreds of refugees from Turkey back to Syria in recent months. In early May, Human Rights Watch documented the cases or five Syrian refugees who were shot dead while attempting to enter Turkey, allegedly by Turkish border troops. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 16 deaths at the Syrian-Turkish border between December 2015 and March 2016.

The EU has sent 390 migrants from Greece back to Turkey since early April, far fewer than planned. About 8,000 migrants, a third of them Syrians, remain in the Aegean islands. The European Commission now believes that Greek appellate judges may stop one in three deportations of Syrians. "This strikes at the core of the deal," said a senior Brussels official.

Europe's goal with the Turkey agreement is deterrence. In recent weeks, a number of migrants have indeed chosen not to leave Turkey for Greece, fearing that they would be sent back. If it now emerges that the Greeks are not deporting migrants nearly as quickly as anticipated, many more refugees could risk the voyage across the sea again soon, predicts Metin Çorabatir, chairman of the Ankara-based Research Center on Asylum and Migration (IGAM).

Frontex officials escort a migrant onto a boat heading back to Turkey from the Greek island of Lesbos.

Frontex officials escort a migrant onto a boat heading back to Turkey from the Greek island of Lesbos.

But the camps on the Greek island are already overcrowded. Food is scarce and migrants have set garbage cans on fire to protest conditions in the camps. "We don't know what we'll do if even more people arrive," says an official with the Greek Ministry of Migration. Political consultant Knaus calls it a "disaster in the making."

At Odds

Nevertheless, the European Union is clinging to the deal, despite the tense climate between Brussels and Ankara. Erdogan has threatened to cancel the agreement altogether if EU refuses to grant Turkish citizens visa-free travel, while Europe has countered that Ankara needs to reform the Turkish anti-terrorism law first, as agreed.

The Turkish president hardly misses an opportunity to show that he couldn't care less about what Europeans think -- of his plan, for instance, to revoke the immunity of members of parliamentarians who refuse to toe the line, so that they can then be sidelined with the help of the judiciary. And now that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has been ousted, the EU has lost a level-headed dialog partner in Turkey. His successor, Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim, is seen as an Erdogan acolyte.

Ankara and Brussels are also at odds over another key element of the deal: the selection of those Syrians who will be allowed to resettle in the EU through the so-called 1:1 mechanism. The mechanism refers to the EU's intention to accept one Syrian directly from Turkey for each Syrian boat refugee that Ankara takes back from the Greek islands.

But the EU granted Turkey special rights in the selection process that are uncommon internationally. Normally, experts with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) decide who qualifies for resettlement. This was the procedure used previously with refugee acceptance programs in Jordan and Lebanon. But the Erdogan government insisted that an agency within the Turkish Interior Ministry be allowed to make the first selection. Only then are the names sent to the UNHCR.

Officially, the UN agency notes that the expedited procedure is taking place "in coordination with Turkish authorities and the host countries." Unofficially, however, UNHCR employees report that they essentially rubber-stamp the lists that Turkey presents to them. They have no veto power, nor are they allowed to propose their own candidates. The host countries only come into play at the end when, after a security check, they can merely say yes or no to individual candidates. "The procedure is completely non-transparent," says a German official.

Keeping the Doctors

There is also a cynical aspect of the dispute. The EU countries had actually agreed with Turkey that the selection process should be balanced. Traumatized and sick migrants were to be allowed to travel, but also others, including those with family members already living in Europe.

But now, several European governments have been noticing a large number of hardship cases among the candidates for resettlement. In an internal EU meeting in Brussels at the end of April, the Luxembourg representative found fault with the candidate lists proposed by Turkey, saying that they are not balanced, "but instead contain either serious medical cases or refugees with very little education." Ole Schröder, the parliamentary secretary of state at the German Interior Ministry, recently reported similar concerns in a closed-door meeting of German parliament's Committee on Internal Affairs.

Several times in recent weeks, Turkish authorities suddenly withdrew previously issued exit permits at the last minute. Oddly enough, they were usually for families with fathers who were well-trained engineers, doctors or skilled workers. Officials from Berlin to The Hague to Luxembourg are familiar with such cases. Turkey has now officially informed the UNHCR that Syrian academics and their families are no longer permitted to leave the country by way of the 1:1 mechanism.

When the deal with Ankara was being negotiated, a few EU member states feared that precisely this scenario would materialize. In internal talks, Germany called for "limits of medical hardship cases," and Luxembourg noted that it would important to ensure that "the balance would have to be monitored." But European negotiators were unable to push through a fixed upper limit for hardship cases.

Fewer than 400 Syrians have been sent to Europe from Turkey to date. The fact that a dispute is already erupting over the selection of refugees does not bode well for the future. The original plan was that the EU would accept up to 72,000 Syrian refugees as part of the resettlement program.

But that would also require more European countries to agree to accept refugees. So far, however, only Germany and four other EU countries, out of a total of 28, are participating in the program. All others boycotted Merkel's deal with Erdogan.

By Riham Alkousaa, Giorgos Christides, Ann-Katrin Müller, Peter Müller, maximillian Popp, Christoph Schult and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Fredrik 05/26/2016
A Europe that essentially accept beeing blackmailed by Turkey hasd no future. Best would be to just drop the hypocrasy and just plainly state that we don't want all the refugee's here. Anyone that tries to enter anyway should just be kicked out. If Turkey doesn't agree to take back the ones who arrive from there then hit hard with trade sanctions or even military action. Paying in the hope they don't continue to dump people in europe is just blackmail. Paying blackmailers never end well....
nsmith 05/27/2016
The E.U. is better off without Erdogan...But what to do with the refugees? Why not an agreement with Greece to lease one of their many islands? -- could work.
Wetoldyouso 05/27/2016
3. And when it collapses?
The real humanitarian response would have been for Merkel and Brussels to do what they should have done in the first place: secure their external borders and shut down Schengen for two years, not tow boatsful of migrants to the shores of Europe, and thus prevent millions from rolling the dice on the hope of being one of those helpfully towed to Europe. The failure to do the most difficult yet most sensible things first, will cost the EU all too dearly in the end. Instead, we have all seen the disgusting spectacle of Merkel grovelling to Erdogan, engendering the EU with enhanced risks of terror attack and more organised crime through visa liberalisation, and a migrant crisis that is now set to shift to the cost of Libya and Africa. For Europeans, the message is clear: our voices have no humanitarian value, and we matter least - until you want our votes and our taxes. The deal with Turkey should collapse. It was too costly on every possible front: moral, legal, practical, and economical - those 6bn euros are EU taxpayers monies. Let the deal collapse and force Merkel and Brussels to take the consequences of their cynicism, negligence, and contempt for European cultures and peoples. The EU is a hugely flawed political entity. It thought it could use the migrant crisis to break down nation-states, identities, and cultures further. Now, those of us who want to see the EU exposed for what it is, believe that collapse of the Turkey deal can be used by us to further break down the EU, which richly deserves it.
l.palanciyan13 05/27/2016
4. refugees and Turkey
I am utterly surprised how on earth the EU could make a deal with a country as Turkey, where no real democracy is present. In Turkey, even nowadays, the poor Kurds, also civilians, are bombed, killed and there is still no rule of law and trias-politica(separation of powers). Every part of the society is dominated by threat of Erdogan, judges, prosecuters are deported, mr Elci has been killed , only because he spoke about Kurdish people, we already know the governement is behind his murder and murderers of him will not be found. Pres.Erdogan replaced all the judges by his friends and will have them to judge the immunuty of Kurdish parliament memebers(which means this Kurdish parlement members are gone be jailed). Also minorities as Kurds are deported from their habitat(East and SouthEast of Turkey), because Turkish government is trying to make a new map of Turkey. The Kurds are deported to the west of Turkey, their cities as Cizre, Diyarbakir are being bombed even today, to force them to cooperate with their deportation, in stead of them,Pres. Erdogan will put the Syrians in East and South-East Turkey, so we will forget the Kurdish existence and this Syrians will support/vote for Erdogan. The poor Syrians are in Turkey also victimised because of the Turkish realtity.Syrian women are taken away from camps by Turkish men(as a 2d or third women), ythe children are forced to work in very bad circumstances, are also forced in prostitution and are kidnapped by organ traders, without any protection of the authorities. The EU probably could not care less about them and the Kurds as long as their suffering is not known to the public in EU. I am afraid as long as pres.Erdogan is in power this suffering will continue.
Microbial Peasants' Lord 05/27/2016
5. Bow to the BBB
It makes perfect sense that Turkey is sending unhealthy and/or low-educated refugees to Europe. The educated ones are worth keeping. That, or Turkey is sending traumatized and sick refugees to Europe because it believes we have better healthcare conditions and is worried with the migrants' well-being. Yep, must be the latter one. The Big Boss of the Bosphorus, Merkel's best buddy, has shown plenty of times he's nothing but a caring and loving leader.
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