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Three unanswered questions about the EU-Turkey refugee deal

Written by Marta Foresti


This morning, crowds of journalists watched as the first boatload of people deported from Greece under the controversial EU-Turkey refugee deal arrived in Dikili, southern Turkey. But as the deal comes into effect, three fundamental questions remain unanswered: is it legal? Can it be enforced? And above all – will it work?

Is it legal?

Almost certainly not, or at least not for now. Despite the last minute changes in Greek law to allow refugees to be returned to Turkey legally, serious doubts remain as to whether Turkey is (or will ever be) a safe country for refugees to be returned to.

Recent reports suggest that Turkish security forces have been responsible for violence – even killing refugees. And there are concerns about Turkey sending refugees back to their country of origin, which would violate international law. These issues will likely lead to lengthy court proceedings, standing in the way of implementing the deal.

Can it be enforced by Greece and Turkey?

Most definitely not. Reports from Lesvos and Turkey alike suggest that the infrastructure, staff and rules necessary to ensure a fair processing of refugees on either side is simply not in place yet. Plans to address this are also unclear. From within Turkey the signs are that this new wave of refugees will not be welcome, with very few prospects for jobs or social integration, which is what refugees – like all migrants – need and aspire to.

Without prospects for a decent life in Turkey it is unlikely that the plan will meet the needs of the host country, or of refugees.

Will it work?

Will this plan ‘stem the flow’? While it’s still early days, the odds aren’t great – for at least three reasons.

First, it is not clear whether and how the deal will work as a deterrent to refugees’ movements. The evidence suggests that border control and stricter migration policies simply don’t affect the decisions that migrants and refugees make along their journeys

Second, the political manoeuvrings behind the deal are murky. What the Turkish political elite want most is visa-free travel to Europe for the country’s 78 million citizens. However the EU has imposed strict conditions, which Turkey is unlikely to meet anytime soon – leaving Turkish politicians with very few bargaining chips to persuade its voters that hosting refugees is a fair exchange.  

Finally, even if it works, the deal will at best make the problem less visible across the Eastern Mediterranean migration route. But as one border shuts, others reopen and refugees will just take another, more dangerous route. There are already signs of increased arrivals in Italy and people dying at sea off the coasts of Libya.

We need an alternative – this is a global issue

This crisis can no longer be considered a European problem: European leaders have tried and failed to find a humane or pragmatic solution. This is a global problem which requires global leaders to take action. Trudeau is leading the way, Brazil is enforcing humanitarian visas, and Obama has announced a global summit at the UN in September and may take bolder action during the last few months of his presidency.

The question now is: will European leaders change course?