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Learning the lessons from the EU–Turkey deal: Europe’s renewed test

Written by Amanda Gray Meral


As the European Union (EU) meets the Turkish government to review its now-failed 2016 deal, it faces a renewed test: strengthen its borders and shut out refugees and other migrants, or recognise that the human and political costs are too high a price to pay.

The deal, which included a €6 billion commitment to Turkey in exchange for its containment of European-bound asylum-seekers, has undermined the core values the EU claims to espouse, while fuelling a dangerous narrative of populism. Paying to contain refugees and other migrants is also not a sustainable migration policy.

The 2016 deal

Signed at a time of heightened anti-migrant sentiment in Europe, the 2016 deal was politically convenient for the EU, and financially and politically expedient for Turkey. In the short term, there was a sharp decline in the number of migrants arriving in Greece, but hopes that the agreement had brought an end to the ‘migrant crisis’ were short-lived. Politically and practically, the deal has failed.

The numbers of asylum-seekers sent back to Turkey as a ‘safe country’ under the deal have been negligible, leaving thousands of Syrian refugees trapped in limbo in Greece. This has led to severe overcrowding in hotspots such as Moira on Lesvos, which holds 19,000 asylum-seekers in facilities designed for 3,000.

Tensions have been rising, with riots and violence between migrants, Greek security forces and host communities and attacks on humanitarian aid workers and locals seen to be helping asylum-seekers.

Turkey’s political will has also waned in the face of deepening public antipathy towards refugees and growing anger that Europe is not doing its share. Turkey currently hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, including 3.7 million Syrians.

In contrast, since 2016 Europe has resettled just 25,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey. With most refugees out of sight and away from Europe’s borders, EU states have simply wished the problem away.

The human cost

The 2016 deal is one of many examples of wealthy states externalising refugee-hosting to low- and middle-income countries. Australia is offshoring its asylum claims and the US has used the threat of tariffs to force Mexico to stem the tide of refugee arrivals. The EU also provides financial support and aid to Libya in exchange for its cooperation in reducing the flow of refugees and other migrants.

Arrangements such as these do more than externalise numbers: they externalise human suffering too.

The abuse, extortion and torture of migrants caught in Libya’s detention system is not an unfortunate side-effect but a direct consequence of EU policy. This approach also leaves the EU open to accusations of hypocrisy and undermines its ability to ensure the protection of refugees, as well as damaging its wider human rights diplomacy.

Reframing the refugee narrative

European leaders must reframe the refugee narrative if they are to achieve consensus on a more humane and sustainable refugee policy.

The language chosen by EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leven, when she dubbed Greece a ‘European shield’, reflects an inflammatory discourse current among European leaders and in the European press. It also points to a further worrying shift away from accepting responsibility by EU politicians and feeds public unease.

Allowing this narrative to go unchallenged, and normalising it within EU politics, only increases the political hurdles European leaders face in agreeing a more humane and sustainable response to those hoping to find a safe future in the face of persecution and atrocities. A more constructive alternative would be to engage the public with messaging that highlights the collective benefits of migration for all

Moving forward

The EU–Turkey deal has weakened regional cooperation on refugee protection and migration governance. It has also turned refugees and other migrants into political pawns and undermined the moral and legal authority of EU member states.  

As the EU sits down to discuss the issue of refugees arriving in Europe at its Leader’s Summit, it must again confront a fundamental dilemma – either it will no longer sidestep its legal responsibilities towards refugees, or it will continue to harden its borders and pay to contain refugees in third countries, in the process sacrificing its own values and authority on global refugee protection.

These deals are a political sticking plaster offering no sustainable solution, while simultaneously undermining the very raison d’être of the EU and its member states. With its fundamental values on the line, this is too high a price to pay.