Tuesday

22nd Jun 2021

Opinion

EU-Turkey refugee deal doesn't add up

  • Austria's Faymann, Turkey's Davutoglu and Germany's Merkel: The best that can be hoped is that leaders are realising that resettlement is key to their managing this situation. (Photo: consillium.europa.eu)

The 8 March agreement between EU leaders and the prime minister of Turkey is being hailed by some as a turning point, and by others as unworkable and even illegal.

The aims of the deal - to close down smuggling routes, break the business model of smugglers, protect external borders and “break down the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe” - are important.

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  • The boats are likely to keep coming despite the summit's outcome (Photo: ifrc.org)

However,the one-for-one deal of every Syrian asylum seeker returned to Turkey from Greece being exchanged for one Syrian refugee to be resettled from Turkey to the EU is highly problematic and unlikely to achieve those goals.

The major reasons for the likely failure are the breakdown in logic, and human understanding, that seem to underpin this approach.

It is impossible to set aside the mass refoulement (return without assessing the protection need) of the asylum seekers who would be returned to Turkey under this agreement: but let us take that vital criticism as heard, and hopefully enforced by European courts.

Let us turn instead to the mathematics of the deal, and the implications of existing practice for this approach.

Maths

One for one. It sounds simple - but the agreement specifically relies on existing resettlement commitments, and explicitly “does not establish any new commitments on member states as far as relocation and resettlement is concerned”.

According to UNHCR, the UN’s refugee branch, there are currently about 20,000 resettlement places on offer for Syrians to the EU over a two-year period.

In the first two months of 2016 there were, according to the International Organisation for Migration, 126,000 arrivals in Greece by boat.

Almost half of these are Syrians - around 60,000. Let us assume a similar number of arrivals in the first two months of this agreement (as Syrians will surely realise that the only way to achieve higher numbers of resettlement places is by keeping boat arrivals high: the agreement just shifts the connection - a Syrian getting in a boat means another Syrian gets resettlement to Europe).

How exactly are 60,000 resettlement places going to be made available without new commitments?

What is more - how exactly is the EU, which has a poor record in removing irregular migrants and failed asylum seekers, going to return 126,000 people to Turkey over a two-month period?

Logic

In addition to the maths, there is the logic: the aim is to close down smuggling routes and change the business model of smugglers. However, if one puts oneself into the shoes of a smuggler and a Syrian one can see that there might be a shift in the model, but no closure.

The agreement does not say “the EU will resettle Syrians so there is no need for them to take boats”, rather it says “first take the boat, then we’ll send you back, and then someone, but probably not you, will be resettled”.

Put differently, there will only be resettlement of any Syrians, or certainly of any significant number of Syrians, so long as some, or indeed many, Syrians are making the journey by boat.

So, yes, this is a whole new model: not only can smugglers get paid for taking people, or sending them, on the treacherous Mediterranean crossing, but perhaps some Syrians could make a new business of being the ones to go to and fro - being paid by others who, presumably patiently, await resettlement.

This brings us to another flaw in the plan: that it regenerates the good refugee/bad asylum seeker model. European states had cut resettlement to hundreds of places in the 1980s and 1990s, and anyone seeking protection in Europe had to get there on their own and ask for asylum.

That essentially created the business of smuggling.

Those who wait

By 2016 the number of resettlement places in EU countries are still only numbers in the several thousands. Without creating any new commitments to resettlement, this agreement with Turkey implies that those who wait in the queue will eventually be resettled - those who don’t wait, and make the journey with smugglers, will not get protection.

However, two things should be clear - those who wait will not wait forever, and those who do not wait are not necessarily in any less need of protection.

In order to wait for resettlement, refugees must have hope that their turn will come soon - and 10,000 places per year, when at least 1 million people are in need of them, will not give sufficient hope.

One in a hundred, where saving a life, or giving a child a future is concerned, are probably not sufficient odds.

The number of places needs to be commensurate both to the size of the refugee population, and to the ambition of the EU’s goals. The EU cannot close smuggling routes, change the smugglers’ business model or protect its external borders with this low level of commitment.

It can bring some changes: the routes might shift to Italy, or Malta, or even along the coast to France or Spain; the business model might become more complex, and costly in lives and finances. Either way, the external borders will not be protected.

This is not to say that the EU leaders are not on the right lines - they are just seemingly not prepared to bite the bullet and go the whole way.

Resettlement

Resettlement, significant resettlement, could close down smuggling routes, break the business model, save lives and protect borders - putting governments in control of who arrives, when, and where.

But significant resettlement is going to mean the promise of something in the order of 300,000 places in 2016 (for a one in three chance), and if the conflict has not ended, then the same again in 2017 and so on, until every Syrian who needs protection has been resettled, or able to return to a peaceful country (or find an integration solution closer to home).

The same is going to be true of Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and every crisis that is producing massive numbers of refugees and displaced persons, and who are finding their way to Europe today.

The EU does not need to stand alone on this - cooperation with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and even Latin American nations which have started to resettle refugees, would help enormously.

This agreement is unlikely to achieve its goals, or be the last step. The best that can be hoped is that leaders are realising that resettlement is key to their managing this situation, saving lives and ensuring European citizens that their leaders are in control.

Joanne van Selm is an independent researcher on migration and refugee issues. She recently worked on projects for the European Commission, the UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration, and the European Parliament

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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