Monday

25th Oct 2021

Opinion

Trump's Syria move will have consequences for migration

  • Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Junker. 'The goals of EU assistance are increasingly at odds with the goals of the government in Ankara' (Photo: Council of the European Union)

The US announcement to give free reign to a Turkish offensive into northern Syria has consequences for migration to Europe as well.

Next to the increase of arrivals on the Greek islands of recent months - the highest numbers since the EU-Turkey statement of March 2016 - events in Syria, and the situation of Syrians in Turkey, will determine the future of EU cooperation with Turkey on migration.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Three developments stand out that are emblematic of larger dilemmas Europe faces in working with neighbours to manage migration.

The goals of EU assistance are increasingly at odds with the goals of the government in Ankara. The risk is that humanitarian aid becomes little more than a band-aid and not a stable part of a long-term migration management.

The mood in Turkey has become increasingly hostile to the estimated 3.6 million Syrians residing there.

The economic downturn, which has brought up youth unemployment to 25 percent, has further fuelled resentment, along with the fact that, eight years into the war, fatigue has set in.

The official message coming from the presidential palace now echoes the sentiment that most Syrians in Turkey should return home, and soon.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been calling for a "safe zone" in northern Syria, claiming that up to three million people could be returned to such a zone.

In contrast, much of the €5.8bn that the EU has allocated to various funding initiatives has been based, at least implicitly, on supporting the long-term integration of Syrian refugees in Turkey.

500,000 children

And, indeed, it seems unlikely that most Syrians will return soon: over 500,000 Syrian children have already been born in Turkey.

An Assad-led Syria is anything but safe for many would be returnees; and details about the proposed "safe zone" are vague, from the mandate and protection, to why Syrians would move to such a zone in the first place - and whether it would necessarily include forced deportations (Turkish government officials have argued it would not).

Second, three years into the EU-Turkey statement, EU members states have still not made the return mechanism from Greece to Turkey work.

One key component agreed to in 2016 was a mechanism of returning people arriving from the Greek islands back to Turkey, once their asylum claim is checked.

For each Syrian returned, EU members states agreed to relocate the same number of Syrian refugees.

The mechanism was supposed to act as both a deterrent to potential asylum seekers considering the journey to Greece, and an incentive for Turkish cooperation equally.

However, the Greek asylum system has been overburdened and slow to change, and there is still no reliable asylum procedure on the Greek islands. As of September 2019, only 1,907 people were returned under the mechanism, far from the 1-1 model or general return mechanism agreed to.

What happens in Idlib…will not stay there

Finally, the biggest unknown factor that could dramatically change the status on EU-Turkish cooperation on refugees is one over which European states have no influence: the battle for the province of Idlib in northwestern Syria.

The strategically located province is home to about three million people and is the last stronghold of rebel forces, including an estimated 30,000 jihadi fighters.

According to UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs, about 400,000 have already been displaced there since April 2019.

Next to the danger of a humanitarian disaster, is the spectre of more irregular movements of people from the region to Turkey (and on to Europe, as Ankara has warned).

None of the actors involved in the Syria conflict want uncontrolled movement of jihadi fighters into Turkey and beyond.

Correcting mistakes

Because of changes in Ankara and shortcoming in Europe, the migration "deal" with Turkey is dysfunctional, but not dead.

The return mechanism for relocation helps Turkey, but so does the message that there is no coming through the Turkish-Greek border to Europe, as this decreases incentives for people coming to Turkey in the first place, say from Iran or Afghanistan.

Europe needs Turkey, too.

Europe should still aim at supporting measures aimed at longer-term integration, even in the face of contrary arguments from Turkish officials.

Support for education or healthcare, are investments worth making no matter where people may find themselves in the future.

Cooperation between Turkey and the EU on managing the movement of people to Europe, not only Syrians, will continue to depend in large part on whether Greece, with EU assistance, manages to speed up its asylum procedures.

This should be made a priority.

And European states must stand ready to act to a potential humanitarian and security crisis, depending on what happens next in Idlib and northern Syria.

After 2015, Germany, France, and the rest of Europe can no longer pretend that the fate of Syrians does not affect their own.

Author bio

Jessica Bither is a migration fellow and senior program officer with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Disclaimer

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

Greece needs to face reality about asylum seekers

What Greece needs is for its new government to have the courage to say what everyone knows needs to happen - namely that the large-scale returns to Turkey are off the table and that the island containment policy is unsustainable.

Europe's empty fortress

It is too easy only to criticise the rightists and their fixation with barbed wire, Trump for his wall on the border with Mexico, Orban for his xenophobia.

Podcast

Not That Ambassador

Gordon Sondland, Donald Trump's ambassador to the EU, is due to appear before the House impeachment inquiry in Washington on Thursday. His predecessor as ambassador, Anthony Gardner, talks about the role, and his successor, on our EU Scream podcast.

News in Brief

  1. Timmermans cancels Moscow visit ahead of COP26
  2. Report: EU to open new mission in Kabul
  3. Bulgaria and Romania run out of beds for Covid-patients
  4. Afghanistan 'on brink of collapse', Sweden warns
  5. Far-right vigilantes stopped on Polish-German border
  6. Croatian right-wingers seek euro referendum
  7. Orbán accuses EU and US of election meddling
  8. Militants free international observers in Russia-occupied Ukraine

Column

Nothing as destructive as radical change

With Poland throwing the legal order of Europe in disarray, Russia rationing Europe's gas supply and the UK reneging on its Brexit commitments, perhaps the moment has come again to read a few essays by French philosopher Michel de Montaigne.

EU Green Deal is too dependent on private finance

What we call for is another approach to the financing of the European Grean Deal. While a lot of attention is being paid to decarbonisation, the other two aspects - de-financialisation and democratisation - are largely ignored.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew report reveals bad environmental habits
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersImproving the integration of young refugees
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNATO Secretary General guest at the Session of the Nordic Council
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCan you love whoever you want in care homes?
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNineteen demands by Nordic young people to save biodiversity
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable public procurement is an effective way to achieve global goals

Latest News

  1. Erdoğan orders out US and EU ambassadors
  2. EU banks play 'major role' in deforestation, report finds
  3. NGOs reveal 71 'revolving-door' cases at fossil-fuel giants
  4. Energy and gender in EU focus This WEEK
  5. Nato invite sees Nordic states stepping up security cooperation
  6. Lessons for the EU in Sahel, from Afghanistan
  7. EU states want more Belarus sanctions
  8. Gas price spike exposes rift at EU summit

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us