Migrants and refugees stand behind a locked iron door at the Moria refugee detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos, on April 16, 2016. Pope Francis gave Europe a concrete lesson Saturday in welcoming refugees by bringing 12 Syrian Muslims to Italy aboard his charter plane after an emotional visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, which has faced the brunt of Europe’'s migration crisis. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

European Leaders Face Criticism For Refugee Deal With Turkey

April 19, 2016
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by Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter

The fate of Syrians hoping to seek asylum in Europe has changed dramatically over the last year. Less than eight months ago, hundreds of thousands of Syrians joined Afghans, Iraqis and others on perilous sea journeys to Greece, trying to make their way to Germany and other European nations with generous asylum policies.

Grateful Syrians dubbed Germany’s leader, Angela Merkel, “compassionate mother,” and the ensuing flow triggered Europe’s largest migration crisis since World War II. In October alone, more than 200,000 migrants arrived in Greece, the most since the crisis began.

While many refugees have since found asylum in Germany, Austria and a few other countries, the welcome has worn thin for more recent arrivals. Thousands now find themselves stuck in refugee camps, or encountering fences and tear gas as they try to find a new home.

Desperate to end a crisis that brought more than a million refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean in 2015, leaders in Europe last month agreed to a controversial deal to send migrants and refugees who traveled from Turkey to Greece back to Turkey. Since the agreement was signed, the number of refugees arriving in Greece has dropped sharply — last week, for example, just 18 refugees arrived in Greece over the span of 24 hours.

The deal is not without its critics. Leaders in Europe have come under fire for turning to Turkey for help at a time when the government in Ankara has been accused of expelling refugees back to Syria, while also increasingly veering away from democratic values like freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Asylum Seekers To Turkey

Under the deal, for every Syrian sent back to Turkey, the European Union will take a Syrian refugee directly from Turkey — until they reach 72,000. The EU will foot the bill for the deportations, in addition to giving aid organizations in Turkey around $6.8 billion in assistance.

The deal was immediately met with criticism from human rights groups, who say the agreement does little to guarantee the long-term safety of refugees, or to ensure that anyone returned to Turkey will not simply be sent back to the very countries they’re escaping from.

Turkey has ratified the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, which establishes that a refugee should not be returned to the country where they face serious threats. However, Turkey only grants refugee status to those fleeing from “events occurring in Europe.” Syrians escaping the war are only granted temporary protection status in Turkey, which rights groups say does not ensure their rights under the refugee convention or their future safety.

On April 1, Amnesty International reported that since January, Turkish authorities have rounded up and expelled groups of Syrians back to Syria “on a near-daily basis.”

“It seems highly likely that Turkey has returned several thousand refugees to Syria in the last seven to nine weeks,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s director for Europe and Central Asia said at the time. “If the [EU-Turkey] agreement proceeds as planned, there is a very real risk that some of those the EU sends back to Turkey will suffer the same fate.”

“The deal, legally, is problematic,” said Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe who served as EU ambassador to Turkey from 2006 to 2011. “The EU is basically trampling on its own rules,” he said, noting that Turkish law provides no guarantees “to non-Syrians that they will not be pushed back to their countries of origin if they are in danger.”

Turkey has denied forcing refugees back into Syria.

Europe’s Bargain On Turkey

In exchange for Turkey’s assistance, the EU offered the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan long-sought concessions. The deal opens the door to the possibility of visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens, as well as the resumption of negotiations to join the EU. Both of these concessions are conditional. Visa-free travel, for example, would still require Turkey to meet 72 requirements on everything from public order and management of migration, to bringing its passports in line with EU standards.

“This has nothing to do with refugees, so it’s basically bargaining. It’s what I call ‘bazaar diplomacy,'” Pierini said, of the EU leadership’s decision to include such concessions. “It’s a strange way of doing diplomatic business.”

The concessions, Pierini noted, have made for an unstable deal, “especially because in Turkey, the leadership has decided to play this negotiation very hard.”

In February, for example, it emerged that Erdogan warned the European Commission’s president that Turkey could send refugees to Europe if it didn’t receive additional help with the crisis. Erdogan confirmed the threat, saying “We do not have the word ‘idiot’ written on our foreheads. We will be patient, but we will do what we have to do. Don’t think that the planes and the buses are there for nothing.” He said that he told the Europeans, “Sorry, we will open the doors and say ‘goodbye’ to the migrants.”

The deal also comes at a time when rights organizations have accused the Turkish government of taking an increasingly authoritarian stance on freedom of expression, dissent and the press. Last month saw a high-profile government crackdown on the media, with police storming the offices of an opposition newspaper with tear gas and water canons. Later in March, Erdogan’s security detail sought to expel journalists from a speech by the Turkish president at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

The EU would normally express concern over the “degradation of the rule of law and freedom of expression,” Pierini said, trying to hold Turkey to the democratic standards it must meet in order to join the EU. “This has been a big bone of contention between the EU and Turkey, and quite clearly, for the sake of having a deal on refugees, the EU in my view has gone very discreet on these issues.”

That view was only heightened this month when the Turkish government called on Germany to investigate a German comedian who cracked crude jokes about Erdogan. Merkel last week said she would allow Erdogan to pursue a defamation lawsuit, with critics saying she had failed to defend free speech for the sake of the refugee deal.

A Stopgap Measure?

Yet even if concerns over Turkey’s human rights record could be addressed, the deal is not likely to stop all migrants and refugees from making it to Europe. There are other routes, from Libya to Italy, from Turkey to Bulgaria, from Morocco to Spain, and on and on. “You patrol the seas better, then land routes are exploited,” said Nigar Göksel, a Turkey analyst at International Crisis Group. “Or the price of smuggling goes up, or different ways of creating fake documents are discovered. Smugglers often win out in these circumstances.”

The best outcome from the deal, observers say, would be the actual improvement of refugee lives in Turkey. The nation has taken in more than 2.7 million Syrians, but only around 10 percent live in refugee camps. Those outside the camps often struggle to find housing, jobs or health care. Meanwhile, more than 400,000 Syrian children in Turkey are thought to be out of school.

“Research shows that most refugees would rather stay in Turkey than go to Europe,” said Göksel. “But they find that their conditions in Turkey don’t equal what they think they’d be offered in the EU … When they think about the future of their children, they see that the opportunities they have in Turkey are relatively limited.”

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