Saturday

17th Apr 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.

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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.

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