EU-Turkish refugee deal in doubt

Friday 25/03/2016
A refugee takes part in a demonstration March 19th calling for opening the borders, at the makeshift camp at the Greek Macedonian borders near the village of Idomeni.

Istanbul - The deal between the Eu­ropean Union and Turkey designed to stem the flow of refugees into Europe is being questioned even before the process to return people from Greece to Turkey has begun.

Under the agreement thrashed out March 18th in Brussels, Turkey will take back refugees who make the illegal journey from its territory to Greece after March 20th. The Eu­ropean Union will take in one Syr­ian from a Turkish camp for every refugee returned from Greece.

That way the total number of ref­ugees in Turkey — about 2.7 million Syrians and 300,000 Iraqis — will not rise, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said. Turkey is to receive up to $6.75 billion in EU aid by 2018 and rewarded with progress in its bid to join the Euro­pean Union and visa-free travel for its citizens in Europe.

The deal is designed to stop a wave of illegal migration that saw 1 million refugees flee to Europe in 2015 and strengthen legal ways for refugees to get to Europe. Turkish Minister for EU Affairs Volkan Boz­kir said those who reach Greece il­legally after March 20th would be excluded from the resettlement programme.

Speaking to the Turkish Anadolu news agency, Bozkir described the deal’s desired effect on refugees as psychological. The European Un­ion and Turkey wanted refugees to conclude that it would be better to “wait my turn”, he said, speaking from the perspective of a refugee. “‘I will not risk my life at sea, be­cause even if I get there, I will not have the chance to go again legally and I will be sent back anyway.’”

Early signs were that the agree­ment was failing to deter refugees from making the hazardous jour­ney from Turkey to a Greek island. “My aim is to go to Europe to find work,” Arafhani Kawaj, a 28-year-old Afghan, told the private Turk­ish DHA news agency on Turkey’s Aegean coast a day after the agree­ment between Turkey and the Eu­ropean Union.

“They say today is the last day but there is no end as far as we are concerned. Our search for a job and a good life will continue,” he said.

Kawaj said he failed twice to get to Greece from Turkey but he would try again. Turkish news reports said security forces had stepped up patrols along the Aege­an coast and had prevented almost 4,500 people from crossing over to Greece since March 1st.

Figures provided by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UN­HCR) suggested that many refugees tried to get to Greece before the March 20th deadline. The UNHCR said 1,431 refugees from Turkey ar­rived in Greece on the day the deal was struck, after 263 on the day before. On March 19th, the last day before the deadline, there were 926 arrivals. A total of 146,500 refugees were registered in Greece between January 1st and March 19th.

While refugees were still arriv­ing in Greece despite the threat of deportation, human rights activists criticised what they see as an illegal agreement between Brussels and Ankara.

The deal showed “the European Union’s dogged determination to turn its back on a global refugee crisis and wilfully ignore its inter­national obligations”, John Dalhu­isen, Amnesty International’s di­rector for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement. “Turkey is not a safe country for refugees and migrants and any return process predicated on its being so will be flawed, illegal and immoral.”

Turkish activists and opposition politicians also rejected the deal. “Turkey will be turned into an open-air prison for refugees,” said the Peoples’ Bridge, a charity based in the western Turkish city of Izmir, a hub for migrants looking to reach Greece. Umit Ozdag, an MP for the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), accused the govern­ment of turning Turkey into “the EU’s migrant rubbish dump”.

Despite the criticism, the Turkish government insists that the agree­ment with the European Union is legal and practical. “Today we re­alised that Turkey and EU have the same destiny, the same challenges and the same future,” Davutoglu said in Brussels.

Turkish news reports say Turk­ish migration officials will go to Greece as the return of refugees on April 4th approaches. Refugees would be taken to Turkey by ferry. It is unclear what will happen to the returnees once they are back in Turkey. The government says they will be put into camps but the country’s existing 26 camps are full and there is no sign of new ones being built. Government offi­cials did not respond to questions about the issue.

Turkey warned Europe to keep its side of the bargain and start ac­cepting Syrian refugees from Tur­key as of April 4th and ensure its promise of financial aid. “We are not bound by complaints by indi­vidual countries,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.