Refugees as Pawns, a short history of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal until now

On February 28, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey “opened the doors” to Europe, warning that “millions” of immigrants would soon be flocking towards the European Union (EU). Over 35.000 refugees gathered at the Greek border only to be stuck there without shelter in the rain and cold upon arrival. Multiple European leaders have expressed their criticism of Turkey using refugees as a bargaining chip. EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell said that “Turkey has a big burden … and we have to understand that […] but at the same time, we cannot accept that migrants are being used as a source of pressure”. Nevertheless, the EU is willing to provide more money to Turkey, financially rewarding the behavior they condemn. A short history of the EU’s external deals shows how this situation evolved.

EU-Turkey Deal

This has not been the first time Erdogan used refugees and asylum seekers as a political/financial tool. In 2015, Erdogan used refugees to negotiate a deal that included visa free-travel, claiming Turkey could “open the doors” to Europe at any time and threatening that “the EU will be confronted with more than a dead boy on the shores of Turkey. There will be 10,000 or 15,000”. Continued talks between the EU and Turkey amidst growing refugee arrivals in Europe eventually led to the so called ‘EU-Turkey deal’.  

In March 2016 this deal was agreed upon in a statement of cooperation between the EU and Turkey. The goal was to curb the large inflow of irregular arrivals to Europe, in particular to Greece. In the deal, each irregular arrival could be taken back to Turkey and in exchange EU member States would take one Syrian refugee from Turkey. The deal also included €3 billion in European funds to better provide for the asylum seekers, as  Turkey was struggling to host some three million refugees, not meeting the basic needs for the asylum seekers who were left on their own to find shelter. In March 2018, an additional €3 billion in European funds was pledged for the deal.

Human Rights issues from externalized border 

For the EU, the benefits of its externalized border were clear. The number of refugees that arrived was significantly lower. The EU would also establish an externalized border with Libya, providing financial aid to a spectrum of governmental and non-governmental agents, including militias, to return refugees intercepted at sea. Both the arrangements with Turkey and Libya, as well as the effect of the arrangements in Europe, have been heavily criticized by human rights advocates. Amnesty International called this new EU strategy of border externalization a “blueprint for despair” arguing in an article that under the EU-Turkey deal those in need or international protection were brought to Turkey “on the untrue, but wilfully ignored, premise that Turkey is a safe country for refugees and asylum-seekers”. 

For many refugees in Turkey it was – and still is –  not possible to apply for a legal status, meaning that they also cannot access basic services. Furthermore, as of March 2019, only 1.5% of the working-aged Syrian refugees had official work permits.   This forces many without a working permit to find informal jobs, which are often paid below minimum wage and have inhumane working conditions.  

Due to the EU-Turkey deal, the reception facilities on the Greek islands were transformed into de-facto detention centers, with the aim of sending arrivals back to Turkey as soon as possible. The Greek government was accused of negligence in their asylum process, on the premise that Turkey is a safe country. Asylum seekers were stuck in the detention center in increasingly deteriorating conditions, hardly meeting basic needs. The mayor of Lesbos criticized the Greek government as well, saying the island is becoming like “Guantanamo Bay”. Criticism increased as camps grew increasingly overcrowded with overwhelmed Greek authorities sending back few refugees to Turkey.  

Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch as well as other Human rights advocates have heavily criticized the cooperation between the EU and Libyan actors as well. In the 2017 Malta Declaration the European Council decided on a partnership with Libya and with Italy’s assistance close to €50 million was invested into the Libyan coast guard and detention centers. As of 2020 the EU has spent more than €327.9 in Libya with large sums of money allegedly disappearing into a network of militias and human traffickers who are working together with the Libyan coastguards. In the UN and EU funded detention centers refugees are systematically abused, tortured and risk being sold to human traffickers for extortion for ransom

Migrants as pawns

Apart from the disregard to human rights that cooperation with Turkey and Libya has entailed, it also sets a precedent that migrants and refugees can be used as political or financial pawns. Refugees being used as pawns is not something new; in 2010 the EU agreed to pay €50 million to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi after his threat that he would “turn Europe black”. During the 2015 debt crisis, Greece also threatened to “flood” Europe with migrants, with Greek defense minister Panos Kammenos saying “If Europe leaves us in the crisis, we will flood it with migrants and it will be even worse for Berlin if in the wave of millions of economic migrants there will be some jihadists of the Islamic State too”.   

In 2017 Turkey’s Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu, threatened to send 15.000 refugees a month to Europe after The Netherlands and Germany would not allow Turkish ministers campaigning in their respective countries for the referendum that would give Erdogan more power. In 2019 Turkey again announced it would suspend the EU-Turkey deal after sanctions were announced as a response to Turkey’s drilling for gas in Cypriot waters, after which the sanctions were postponed.

Rent-seeking behavior 

Dr Gerasimos Tsourapas, Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Birmingham, classifies this behavior of using migrants and refugees as political or economic pawns by regimes as rent-seeking behavior – in short, profiting without creating much additional value. Through ‘rent-seeking’, governments find ways to make migration financially or politically rewarding. With Western countries increasingly resistant against migration, rent-seeking behavior has become very beneficial. Tsourapas divides rent-seeking behavior into two strategies. The first strategy being “back-scratching,” in which States plead for international assistance and appeal to international norms and laws- exhibited by Jordan and Lebanon. The second strategy, more prevalent in Turkey, Libya and Iran, is blackmailing, which is based on threats and unilateral action.

While European leaders have argued that they cannot be blackmailed, they have created a situation in which blackmailing works and this sends a clear message to other countries as well. As  Dr Gerasimos Tsourapas notes: “A few weeks after the 2016 E.U.-Turkey deal, Kenya’s national security head threatened to close down the Dadaab refugee camp, one of the largest in the world, saying the West had been getting away with it ‘on the cheap.’ Looking back at how they dealt with the Syrian refugee crisis, a Jordanian official said that ‘we should have blackmailed the E.U. like Turkey did’”. This shows that not only is the EU rewarding blackmailing behavior, it is also inspiring it in other actors. 

Moving forward. 

The EU is accused of neglecting its internal responsibilities as well. Asylum seekers have systematically been portrayed as a threat to Europe. EU leaders have praised Greece for being a “shield” against the migrants let through by Turkey; Human beings have simply disappeared from the equation. In a joint statement 85 NGOs have expressed their deep concern with the extremity and violence with which Greek authorities and the EU have responded to the refugees. 

Furthermore, The EU also has failed to uphold its pledges. Only €4.7 billion out of the promised €6 billion has been assigned to Turkey and only 25,000 refugees have been legally resettled from Turkey, which is nowhere near the ‘one for one’ deal with Turkey. Turkey claims that the refugee crisis costs over $35 billion. Internally the EU is arguably in a “crisis of solidarity,” with Europeans xenophobia being a significant factor. Of the 160.000 people that were planned to be relocated from Greece and Italy to other member states, only 34,705 (21.6%) actually were relocated.

The EU has not only pretended that the Turkey deal was a viable option in 2016, it also keeps pretending that the deal remains a sustainable option in the future. Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in the world with over four million registered refugees, mostly from Syria. Erdogan is in a difficult situation, with a significant portion of the Turkish population turning sour against refugees meaning he cannot easily open the path to full citizenship, nor can he forcefully deport millions of refugees. The EU cannot keep relying on Erdogan, who has demonstrated to be an unreliable ally. Nor can the EU keep relying on externalisation of its borders to push out people entitled to protection.