The EU refugee deal with Turkey
Here’s what we know. The deal promises money, an easing of visa restrictions for Turks, and a renewal of Turkey’s EU candidacy in exchange for Turkey increasing its efforts to contain refugees within its own borders. It says much about the EU’s fears of mass migration if a country tilting towards autocracy and on the brink of civil war can use the threat of a refugee influx to renew its candidacy, while in the past its efforts to democratise were rebuffed. At that time, however, the EU snubbed Turkey for its own domestic reasons, and Turkey’s leaders began to look elsewhere for political and economic partnerships and to abandon many of the fragile reforms they had already made. Had the EU embraced Turkey a decade ago, it would be a much different country today. These days, though, the crackdown on media and protest and the violent polarisation of politics have led to a slow flight of educated Turks.
What Turkey is being asked to do:
• Adopt legislation giving refugees living in Turkey the right to work and access public services, including healthcare and education. This is considered vital for the vast majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey who live outside camps and are struggling to support themselves through informal employment. Last year, the Turkish government adopted a new law on foreigners and international protection that has improved refugees’ access to health services and provides the right to free education (although anecdotal evidence suggests many refugee children still aren’t being admitted to schools). At the beginning of this year, the government announced plans to grant those with protected status the right to work, but in May, in the run-up to elections, it backtracked on the proposed legislation. There is little public support for any measures making it easier for refugees to compete with locals for jobs.
• Improve registration and asylum procedures for refugees. Turkey has retained a geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention, meaning that it only grants full refugee status to people coming from Europe. Until recently Syrians were treated as “guests” and given only temporary protection. The new 2014 law mentioned above, which came into effect in April, has improved their legal position, but still stops short of granting them full refugee status. Amnesty International points out that non-Syrian refugees face even greater obstacles, with some Yazidi refugees fleeing the so-called Islamic State in Iraq waiting more than five years just to register as asylum seekers.
• Boost the capacity of the Turkish coastguard to intercept smugglers’ boats loaded with migrants and refugees headed for the Greek islands. Although some refugees report being stopped by coastguard vessels and towed back to the Turkish coast, few have been prevented from trying again, and the majority have made the short crossing unhindered. This could change if Turkey steps up cooperation with the EU border agency, Frontex, and the Greek coastguard, and uses EU money to do more patrolling.
• Crack down on smuggling networks operating both on the coast and at the border with Syria. The migrant smuggling trade in Turkey has grown exponentially to become extremely lucrative, and, as long as there is a demand for the service, it will be extremely difficult to curtail. This has been low on Turkey’s political agenda and it remains to be seen whether the incentives offered by the EU will be enough to turn this around.
• Make it harder for migrants to get visas in Turkey. One of the reasons Turkey has become a major transit country – not only for Syrians, but also for migrants and refugees from many other countries – is its lax visa requirements. Turkish Airlines offers direct and affordable flights from many African and Asian countries considered by the EU to be sources of irregular migrants. Nationalities including Somalis, Afghans and Sudanese are all eligible for e-visas into Turkey that can be purchased online without any rigorous checks.
• Accept returned irregular migrants. Migrants deemed “not in need of international protection,” who are intercepted by the Greek or Bulgarian authorities, will be handed back to Turkey. What happens to them next is a major concern of rights groups like Amnesty, who point at the Turkish government’s past record of detaining and forcibly returning refugees intercepted by border guards.
What the EU is promising in return:
• Three billion euros to support Turkey in hosting over two million refugees. This is significantly more than the one billion euro figure mentioned in a draft version of the plan published earlier this month and, according to The Economist, EU member states have yet to make any pledges to top up the 500 million euros that will come from the EU’s own budget.
• Support for resettlement schemes that provide a legal channel for refugees to move from Turkey to the EU. So far member states have only agreed to a voluntary scheme to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over two years. According to The Financial Times, the EU Commission is due to propose a much bigger programme that would recommend states taking in 200,000 refugees from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon as a “quid pro quo” for Turkey’s role in stemming irregular movements to Europe. It remains to be seen whether member states will agree to such a steep increase in resettlement numbers.
• Inclusion of Turkey on the EU’s new “safe countries of origin” list. Asylum seekers from so-called safe countries of origin have their applications fast-tracked so the majority can be rapidly returned. But the Turkish government’s interest lies more in the international kudos it might gain from being added. Turkey’s inclusion on a draft list has already been criticised by rights groups, who say it would mean turning a blind eye to Ankara’s dismal human rights record and to the fact that nearly one in four asylum claims by Turkish citizens are currently successful in the EU.
• Visa-free travel for Turkish citizens wanting to visit the EU, and the reopening of discussions to admit Turkey into the bloc. A number of member states remain sceptical about accelerating Turkey’s EU membership bid, according to The Economist. Right-wing political parties that hold sway in a number of states are also unlikely to welcome any move that could see more migrants heading for their borders. Experts have also predicted that such a move could hasten a brain drain from Turkey to the EU that is already under way.
As an aside, one piece of good news is the increased job opportunities for some people. A by-product of the dramatic rise in the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe is soaring demand for a relatively new kind of humanitarian professional: the cultural mediator.
As the first point of contact the refugees have on arrival, cultural mediators play a crucial role: translating, informing and generally acting as go-betweens with the local authorities. They advise migrants about their rights and the services available in their new country. They also explain the cultural differences they need to be aware of as they navigate life in a foreign land, all the while relaying vital information back to aid workers.
In Italy, in particular, there is increasing demand from humanitarian organisations for people who can act as these “bridges” with migrants and refugees. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, recently advertised positions in Sicily, and universities in southern Italy have started offering Masters degrees in the field.
The University of Catania describes its one-year course as “a training of experts in counselling and advising in the domains of civil rights, migration and language-cultural mediation”.
“Cultural mediators are very important to help us understand things that are not spoken by the refugees, like fears, beliefs, and thoughts that are part of one’s culture,” said psychotherapist Lilian Pizzi