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‘Stranded and waiting:’ the effect of the Turkey-EU agreement on refugees

In recent weeks, overcrowding on the Aegean islands reached its worst levels since 2016, when the deal agreed upon by the EU and Turkey that shaped the policies, politics and economic situation in Turkey and Greece today, materialized. 

8 October 2019

AMMAN—Little progress has been made with the United States in forming a “safe zone” in northeastern Syria, prompting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to threaten an air and ground military operation east of the Euphrates River.

Ankara and NATO ally Washington agreed in August to establish the so-called safe zone along 480 kilometers (300 miles) of the border with two main goals intact: to drive the Kurdish YPG militia—deemed a security threat by Turkey—away from the Turkish border, and to create a space inside Syria where 2 million Syrian refugees currently hosted in Turkey can be resettled. 

Since agreeing to the setup, Turkey repeatedly warned of unilateral military action if international efforts fall short of its expectations, saying it would not tolerate any attempts by the US to stall the process and their deadline was last Tuesday, the end of September. 

At the same time, Erdogan called on international support to aid in the resettlement process, threatening to “open the gates” for migrants and refugees to cross into Europe if Turkey doesn’t receive international support for the refugee safe zone in northern Syria. 

The refugee issue in Turkey has become complicated, said Dr. Ali Bakeer, Ankara-based political analyst. Inside Turkey, the 3.6 million Syrian refugees are a heated political issue as the country’s economy struggles to emerge from recession. 

Beginning in mid-July, Turkish authorities launched a severe wide-scale security campaign against thousands of Syrian refugees and illegal laborers in different parts of the country as Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, announced Turkey was withdrawing from the Turkey-EU migrant agreement it entered into with the European Council in 2016.  

Authorities detained and deported thousands of Syrians with Turkish Temporary Protection Identification Documents, or ‘Kimlik’, living in cities they are not authorized to live in or working without proper work permits.

To date, Turkey is the largest host to Syrian refugees; this was widely accepted at the beginning of the Syrian Crisis, Bakeer said. Eight years later, however, as the Syrian crisis is prolonged, the Turkish economy declines while Western powers fail to act, and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) faces a setback in local elections, hosting refugees in Turkey has become a heavy load for Turkey to carry, Bakeer added. 

“The Turks are afraid that there can be more waves of refugees as a result of Assad assaults against Idlib. They want a solution and the ‘safe zone’ idea can help facilitate one as no single country is offering an alternative.”

When Turkey accepted a large number of Syrian refugees it enjoyed a very long period of economic growth and was on the brink of becoming what the World Bank defines a high-income country. But recently Turkey’s economic growth has been diminishing. The country’s unemployment rate has increased and placed the country in a weaker position than five years ago to hold large numbers of Syrian refugees. 

“There’s an economic dimension to a political game,” Dr. Franck Düvell, head of the migration department at the German Centre on Integration and Migration Research. 

Jobs are becoming scarce to find and the pressure on the Turkish government is mounting. Even so, the kind of jobs Syrian refugees have taken are ones Turks don’t want to any longer. Syrian refugees moved into the industries that Turks abandoned like the textile industry, shoe industry, service industry, and agriculture. 

“The textile industry only survived because of the Syrian refugees and I’m not quite certain the Turks want to move back into these jobs,” Düvell added. 

Security crackdown signals increased migration

Since the crackdown in Turkey began, boats of refugees leaving it for the EU are the highest registered since the height of the 2015 refugee crisis. According to Aegean Boat Report (ABR), a Norwegian volunteer-run media site providing information on the refugee crisis in the Aegean Sea, arrivals at the Aegean islands from Turkey have gone up 174% in September 2019 as opposed to this time last year. 

Over 900 boats started towards the Greek islands this month, carrying almost 32,000 people but only 308 reached the islands, carrying more than 10,500 refugees. 

In recent weeks, overcrowding on the islands reached its worst levels since 2016, when the deal agreed upon by the EU and Turkey that shaped the policies, politics and economic situation in Turkey today, materialized. 

During the height of the refugee crisis in Europe in 2015, over one million asylum seekers poured into European countries, creating a moral panic in the EU, a crisis of border control and reception, and exposing serious flaws in Europe’s asylum system. This prompted the EU to slow down, monitor, and subsequently stop the refugee influx.

In March 2016, the European Council and Turkey signed the controversial EU-Turkey agreement as a solution for the rapid influx of refugees into Europe, most of whom passed through Turkey. It halted the migration of refugees, mostly Syrian, Afghani and Iraqi, escaping to Europe through Turkey and Greece and laid out the foundation for policies governing refugees in Turkey, Greece and Europe today. 

Security measures were spiked; EU country borders closed. Turkey closed its border to stop the migration of refugees as a precondition to accepting the agreement as well, Düvell said, and shouldered most of the responsibility in regards to hosting refugees and opening its labor market to Syrians under temporary protection. 

Turkey introduced a new visa requirement for Syrians and other nationalities and stepped up security efforts by the Turkish Coast Guard and police to stop boats crossing into Europe. The refugees who did manage to slip through since then have been stuck in hotspots all over the Aegean Islands and in Greece.

Turkey also agreed to accept the return of all refugees crossing into Greece and to take back refugees intercepted in Turkish waters. In exchange for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian would be resettled from Turkey into Europe, the agreement stipulated.

The European Council promised to deliver €6 billion in financial aid to support Turkey and finance projects for Syrian refugees and to also allow visa-free travel for Turks looking to access Europe. In keeping with the agreement, the European Council donated about €3 billion to a range of Turkish initiatives on the ground, from education and integration measures to training programs, Düvell said. But whether the financial support received has been satisfactory is a point of contention. 

“Considering that Europeans has a fundamental interest in a permanent solution for the refugees in Turkey, and considering that they entered into commitments to convince Turkey to keep the refugees within its borders and not let them reach Europe, Europeans should have provided way more support than what they have promised,” Bakeer said. “The received support from Europe is very limited and inadequate for sure.”

Another critical point of the altercation that has led Turkey to repeatedly threaten to back out of the agreement, according to Düvell, is the visa-free entry that was promised to Turkey but that remained only a written provision in the agreement. 

Since Erdogan’s AKP has been losing popularity, his grip on the country is being challenged. He is in a bind to win back the hearts of Turks who are being economically deprived and subject to what they deem to be unfair travel restrictions. 

The opening of the border to Europe and the threat to leave the agreement is “at the moment more like a political signal. A threat to demonstrate that Turkey is very unhappy with the EU’s failure to drop the visa requirements and remains to be seen what the consequences will be,” Düvall said. 

It remains that Turkey needs the EU as much as the EU needs Turkey, he continued, “for economic reasons, investments, tourism and travel. But also for political support.” Turkey risks harming relations with the EU, and for that reason, will not drop controls altogether. 

“It can play with the level of controls and increase or decrease controls and the number of refugees to demonstrate what the level of threat can be,” he added. But this will not have any measurable consequences. “Turkey maintains a very high level of control of the maritime border in the Aegean Sea and the main reason why more people arrive in Greece is because more people try to leave,” Düvell said. “Turkey arrests as many people as before and stops as many boats as before. There is not any change.” 

Tommy Olsen, the founder ABR, agreed. “So far this has been only political pressure and not a reality,” he told Syria Direct. “It has been said many times to provoke EU.”

Turkey is interested in finding a solution for the refugees rather than picking a fight with or creating a problem for Europe, Bakeer added.

“From a Turkish point of view, the refugee issue is not a local one and should not be dealt as if it is a Turkish issue rather than an international issue where the international community has obligations to fulfill and responsibilities to carry out,” he added. “Turkish officials are sounding the alarm bell. The message is clear: Turkey has done a lot for the refugees and can not tolerate the burden alone anymore.”

Arrivals in Greece 

Refugees who make it to the Greek islands face a dubious fate, said Fatima Khalil (pseudonym), a 19-year-old Kurdish-Syrian mother of two who traveled to the Aegean Islands from Turkey in 2017 and was recently located to the Greek mainland.

Refugees are being met and accommodated by outstretched services and a revolving door of volunteer aid workers working day and night to meet continuously growing demands. Resettlement to a European country is almost impossible and can take years.

Khalil was only 15 years old when she was engaged and married. She met her husband in Afrin, got engaged when he moved to Turkey in 2013, and married two years later. She moved to Turkey in 2015.

The young couple was comfortable living in Istanbul, she told Syria Direct. Musa, her husband, worked in a factory and after a couple of years, they had a baby boy. But as Kurds living in Istanbul through the Turkish military operation in 2016, Euphrates Shield, in Syria, they noticed attitudes towards them shift. 

It started with her husband receiving less work hours and going unpaid for long periods. She was ignored or scolded in public and in the hospital when she delivered her first child; but the last straw for the couple was when they started hearing horror stories about Kurds living in Turkey being illegally deported to Afrin. 

“I had pictures on my phone of buses of people being deported,” she said. “We couldn’t stay there any longer and face that risk.”

The young family decided to move to Greece in an effort to relocate to Europe, convinced that whatever they would face on the islands would be less dangerous than the risk they face in Turkey.

After numerous failed attempts to sneak on a boat with a smuggler over the course of 15 days, they finally made it to Chios in 2017. Her son was only two months old and was resting in her arms as she crossed the sea. 

“When I first came to the island, I was stunned. It was very dirty! Trash was overflowing. The smells were awful and it was cold,” she recounted. 

She was greeted kindly, but was also told right away that she wouldn’t be able to leave without a report indicating a psychological problem or a pregnancy.  

There were scores of refugees cramped in one space, she said; one nine-meter caravan was home to four families and one tent sometimes held more than that. They moved between camps several times.

She had a second baby and was relocated to a small shared house on the mainland in 2019. 

The family applied for an appointment with the Greek government to receive passports and will remain in the shared house until the end of December. Her voice was hesitant as she told Syria Direct about her family’s plans to leave Greece for another European country in the coming year.

“If we are able to find work here, we wouldn’t try to leave,” she said. “People here show us no kindness but we were lucky. We were able to leave the islands. Other people aren’t so lucky.”

Under conditions of an economic crisis, unemployment, increased persecution, raids, racism and discrimination, Syrian refugees in Turkey might reconsider remaining in Turkey and what to do next.

“So there is a double deterrent effect. You would not be able to move on to other EU countries and you will be treated very badly and sit in these camps forever. People in Turkey know full well what to expect once they arrived on the Greek islands,” Düvell said. The population on the Greek Islands has passed 30,000 people, according to ABR, and continues to grow. Greek authorities announced they will be transferring 3,000 refugees from the islands to the mainland by the end of October, but as arrivals have increased since July and more than 3,000 people arrived this past week alone, these measures are viewed as insufficient.

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