Europe to refugees: Stay away
After months of acrimonious negotiations, the European Union and Turkey agreed to a deal to stem the flood of refugees sailing from Turkey to Greece, the first stage of a long migrant trail to the north. Germany has been the preferred destination but its vaunted Willkommenskultur — culture of welcome — is fading.
European Council President Donald Tusk, one of the lead negotiators, sounded euphoric about the accord, saying: “The days of irregular migration to Europe are over.” That statement is unlikely to pass the test of time and may well end up filed under “famous last words”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a blunt message for potential asylum seekers that stood in sharp contrast to her all-are-welcome policy of last year, when Germany took in more than 1 million foreigners and she became a heroine in the eyes of Syrian refugees and humanitarians the world over.
Said Merkel: “When you embark on this perilous journey, you are not only risking life and limb but you have little prospect of success.”
Hundreds have died on the dangerous trip across the Aegean from Turkey to Greek islands on rickety boats and overloaded rubber rafts.
Under the EU-Turkey deal, Syrian refugees and other migrants landing in Greece would be returned to Turkey under an ambitious and logistically challenging “one in, one out” arrangement: For every refugee sent back to a Turkish camp. another, carefully vetted, will be transferred from Turkey directly to a European country.
As Merkel, Europe’s most powerful politician, sees it: “This is how we want to end this inhumane business model of the traffickers and restore the protection of our external borders.”
Ankara will get $6.7 billion to run refugee camps and provide food, schools, medical care and various projects to improve the conditions of the 2.7 million Syrian refugees who have fled their civil war to Turkey. Under the “one in, one out” arrangement, European countries have promised to take 72,000 Syrian refugees in 2016 — less than 3% of the total.
The striking mismatch in numbers suggests that almost all of the Syrians in Turkish camps will be stuck there for as long as the civil war continues. Although talks to end the conflict resumed in March, a day before the fifth anniversary of the peaceful anti-government demonstrations that morphed into war, no end to the fighting is in sight.
Among the many obstacles on the road to implementing the EU-Turkey agreement are widespread perceptions of refugees as potential terrorists. Four days after the accord, bomb attacks in Brussels that killed more than 30 people and wounded scores more prompted anti-immigrant politicians from Paris to Bratislava and from Warsaw to Washington to Sydney to conflate terrorism and the refugee crisis — even before the identity of the killers was known. As it turned out, the suspects were born and raised in Belgium.
That did not keep Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo from declaring that her country would not take in the 7,000 refugees the government had previously agreed to accept. Neither did it keep US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump from renewing his call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. Or his rival US Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, from insisting that the United States should admit no refugees at all. For good measure, Cruz wants to “patrol and secure” Muslim neighbourhoods.
The EU-Turkey agreement took effect March 20th. The following day, 1,662 migrants arrived in Greece, according to authorities. The next day, 600 made their way to a Greek island, on March 23rd, the count was 260, a day later, it was zero. It was not clear whether this was the effect of inclement weather or the “don’t even try it” warnings from leaders such as Merkel.
The first transfers of the estimated 45,000 refugees stuck in Greece, including 12,000 in grim conditions in a camp on the Greek border with Macedonia, are scheduled for early April. How long it will take for all to be moved is anyone’s guess.
But at least two things appear reasonably certain: The days of irregular migration are far from over and the business model of people smugglers will survive as long as wars, poverty and insecurity drive people from their homes. Experts on illegal trafficking have a phrase to describe the durability of that business model: “the balloon effect”.
Squeezing a balloon in one place — in this case the Aegean — makes it expand in another. The most likely place for this to happen is Libya, which had been a major launch point for refugees heading towards Italy before the shorter and less dangerous route from Turkey to Greece became the preferred choice.
According to French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, about 800,000 migrants who have fled conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa are in Libya waiting to get to Europe. And lawless Libya has no shortage of traffickers.