On the night of 27-28 February, Turkey lifted the strict controls it has enforced at its sea and land borders with Greece since March 2016, prompting thousands of migrants to head for the frontier in order to attempt passage into Europe. Ankara’s decision came just an hour after news broke that at least 34 Turkish soldiers had been killed in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held bastion. It was the highest death toll the Turkish military had suffered in a single attack in the last two decades, and it exacerbated fears that intensified combat in Idlib would push nearly one million more Syrians into Turkey to join the four million refugees the country has been generously hosting.
Ankara’s move was popular among Turkish citizens, who are growing weary of the socio-economic burdens of hosting refugees and want them to return to Syria, as Turkish officials have been promising for some time that they will. With social services badly overstretched, anti-migrant sentiment is on the rise – at times erupting into violent clashes in cities densely populated by refugees. Turkish politicians are likewise worried about the drain on the country’s resources as well as the domestic blowback should there be a new inflow of refugees from Idlib, which is home to some three million civilians. Hundreds of thousands have already fled toward the Turkish border, many marooned in precarious conditions in makeshift camps.
Some observers say the government removed the border restrictions to deflect public attention from the military’s losses in Idlib, where it has reportedly deployed some 20,000 soldiers in an effort to contain the fighting. For two days after the attack, Ankara blocked Internet users’ access to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, all widely used social media platforms in the country. More than half of Turkish citizens, or 52.7 per cent, oppose the military intervention in Idlib, while 40 per cent support it, according to an early March survey that a Turkish polling company conducted after the 34 soldiers died. The rate of support is far lower than the popular backing (which ran as high as 80 per cent) for Turkey’s previous three operations in northern Syria, carried out between March 2017 and November 2019. These operations all aimed to curb the ambitions of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, the EU and the U.S. have designated a terrorist organisation.
While the Turkish government needed a public relations victory, it had deeper motives in opening the borders. Ankara calculated that the move would pressure the European Union into supporting its course in Idlib and secure additional funding for the Syrian refugees in Turkey. It also aimed to compel the EU to meet its commitments under a March 2016 agreement by which Turkey limits the number of migrants crossing into Europe in exchange for refugee aid and other promises.
The 2016 migration deal had been hanging by a thread long before President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made good on his longstanding threat to open the borders. Turkish officials had been vocal in their dissatisfaction with the EU’s failure to deliver on three of the deal’s provisions: visa liberalisation, a customs union upgrade and accelerated negotiations over Turkish accession to the EU. They have also been demanding more backing for Ankara’s venture in Idlib, including air cover to establish a “safe zone”, and more humanitarian aid for displaced civilians in Syria, as well as more financial assistance for Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Ankara’s tactic appears to have prodded an EU fearful of a repeat of the 2015-2016 migration crisis into action. A series of high-level EU-Turkish conclaves took place in Ankara and Brussels. EU leaders struck a positive note after two hours of talks with Erdoğan and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on 9 March, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson are scheduled to meet with Erdoğan (by videoconference, due to coronavirus) on 17 March. But, in substantive terms, the list of disagreements between the two sides is long. They have signalled only tentative willingness to engage further, agreeing to set up two working groups to “review” implementation of the March 2016 deal. Ankara hopes for quick progress ahead of the European Council leaders’ summit on 26-27 March.
Furthermore, and despite the high-level diplomacy, the border decision had a chilling effect on overall EU-Turkish relations just as some EU capitals were tentatively exploring options for supporting Turkey’s intervention in Idlib, including a no-fly zone. EU diplomats say their governments are newly reluctant to do anything that could be perceived as rewarding Turkey for hostile behaviour. The EU sent the heads of its three main institutions, the Commission, Council and Parliament, racing to the border to pledge full support to Greece to help it “shield” Europe’s borders. The next day, the bloc’s 27 interior ministers denounced “Turkey’s use of migratory pressure for political purposes”. In Turkey, video footage of migrants being violently pushed back by Greek police and coast guards heightened anti-EU rhetoric. Top Turkish officials accused the EU of “hypocrisy” for violating the same fundamental rights it continuously criticises Ankara for disrespecting.
Tensions on Turkey-Greece border
Ankara’s gambit highlighted yet again the importance of addressing the plight of vulnerable migrants willing to risk their lives on the perilous journey to Europe. The announcement opening the border persuaded thousands of people living in Turkey – Greece and Turkey differ over the exact number – to head for Greek islands in the Aegean Sea or the land crossings into Greece, unaware that Greek border police would block their way.
One child drowned off the island of Lesbos on 2 March, as Ankara and Athens traded barbs over the steps each had taken to manage the flow of desperate people. Greek authorities used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets on land, and coast guard ships in the Aegean, to push the migrants back, in what Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis described as increasing “the level of deterrence … to the maximum”. Greece also suspended the right to apply for asylum, a decision that the UN said lacked any legal basis. Turkey claims that more than 1,000 migrants were injured and at least four killed after Greek border police opened fire on migrants crossing overland – an accusation denied by Greek authorities. Thousands remain stranded at the Pazarkule/Kastanies crossing, where they have set up plastic tents. On Greek islands, where – according to UN data as of 8 March – at least 1,881 migrants have landed since Ankara’s decision, camps remain alarmingly overcrowded and living conditions poor.
Mounting fears about the spread of coronavirus in Europe have fuelled concern both over the uncontrolled movement of people and conditions in migrant camps, with one case of the COVID-19 illness diagnosed in a camp on Lesbos on 9 March. Some European politicians have cited virus-related worries to justify calls for tougher border policing, including the suspension of asylum rights.
The vast majority of those who attempted to cross are Afghans. Many Afghans have come to Turkey from Iran, where they had fled from the war in their home country, and where they have lately been squeezed by a deteriorating economy under tightened U.S. sanctions. Some were facing deportation by Tehran. The situation of Afghans in Turkey is dicey, however, dicier than that of Syrians, since they have virtually no access to aid programs. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as of February 2020, some 170,000 registered Afghan asylum seekers were waiting in Turkey to be resettled to a third country. Many more undocumented Afghans lead hidden lives in Turkey’s big cities, struggling to earn enough to support themselves and their families. In the last two years, after a dramatic surge in their numbers, Turkey has begun deporting them to Afghanistan en masse. Of 455,000 irregular migrants whom Turkish authorities rounded up in 2019, almost half (201,000) were Afghans.
Others set on the move by Turkey’s decision included Turkish citizens, as well as migrants from Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Morocco and as far away as Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Somalia.
The refugee deal
Although human rights organisations faulted it for insufficiently protecting refugees, the 2016 deal achieved one of its key objectives, decreasing the flow of irregular migrants from Turkey into Greece by 97 per cent. As part of the deal, €6 billion of EU funding for the needs of Syrian refugees in Turkey has been put to good use, including education for over 600,000 Syrian school-age children. As of the end of February 2020, €4.7 billion had been contracted and €3.2 billion disbursed to projects managed by UN agencies, local and international non-governmental organisations, and Turkish ministries. In the single largest humanitarian aid program ever funded by the EU, the Emergency Social Safety Net supplies cash assistance to some 1.7 million Syrians. But some projects, including in education, are coming to an end soon. Ankara has complained that the EU was too slow to release funds and that too much of the money went to the overhead expenses of international organisations with too little going to refugees themselves.
The 2016 migration deal was a package that included a resettlement scheme for migrants to the EU; visa-free travel to the Schengen area for Turkish citizens; modernisation of the EU-Turkey customs union; acceleration of Turkey’s EU accession talks; and an ill-defined provision on EU-Turkish cooperation to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria. Due to reluctance among EU member states, only 25,000 Syrians have been resettled to the 27-member bloc from Turkey in the four years since the agreement came into effect.
The EU has dragged its feet on visa-free travel and customs union modernisation as democracy and the rule of law in Turkey declines. It spoke out strongly against Ankara’s harsh measures targeting the media and opposition under a two-year state of emergency after the July 2016 coup attempt. Meanwhile, an ever greater number of European politicians – as well as voters across the bloc – oppose bringing Turkey into the EU fold.
Other developments straining ties also contributed to the EU not living up to its promises. Ankara has been at odds with EU capitals over measures it has pursued in its fight against the PKK/YPG. Several EU countries – notably France – have been critical of Turkey’s military involvement in Libya to protect the internationally recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli from an offensive led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army. And Turkey’s oil and gas exploration in waters near Cyprus, where it has deployed drill ships with naval escorts in response to the Republic of Cyprus’ efforts to extract the fossil fuels with licences given to Western companies, has triggered EU sanctions.
Salvaging Turkey-EU cooperation
EU-Turkey ties have been fraying for over a decade. The standoff at the Greece-Turkey frontier reveals the shortcomings of their increasingly transactional engagement. Brussels and Ankara need to build a better relationship in which both sides benefit – starting with revisiting the 2016 migration deal. The humanitarian crisis in Idlib adds urgency to the task, as neither side wants to grapple with another influx of impoverished Syrians, many of whom will seek ways to enter Europe.
Forging a new consensus will not be easy. Ankara wants to force progress on its demands, including support for its Idlib operation and significantly more funding for Syrians in Turkey, but EU leaders do not want to appear hostage to President Erdoğan. Brussels’ desire to stand firm in its other disagreements with Ankara dims prospects for a quick fix of the current migration spat.
As EU and Turkish officials revisit the 2016 deal in the coming weeks, the two sides should explore options for modernising the customs union and fostering the integration of refugees in Turkey. They should also assess the prospect of offering substantially more humanitarian aid and other assistance to civilians in Idlib. Worries over the spread of coronavirus among these vulnerable populations, who may soon be on the move, is all the more reason to take measures to address their desperate conditions. Progress in these areas is more realistic than efforts to unstick complex talks on visa liberalisation or accession that are conditioned on Turkey meeting a long list of criteria ranging from counter-terrorism legislation to Cyprus-related issues.
One key issue is whether the EU will free up new funding for Syrian refugees in Turkey and displaced persons in Idlib. The EU appears willing to ramp up support in this area, but whether it will be enough to satisfy Ankara remains to be seen.
Outside the existing deal, the EU could also consider offering support to Turkey’s efforts to bolster border management, including in the east, the main route for undocumented migrants. EU assistance can also be channelled to help Turkey address the needs of hundreds of thousands of migrants from other countries – including Afghans. The EU could aid grassroots organisations working with these people and encourage EU-funded organisations focused on the needs of Syrian refugees to expand their work to cover other migrant groups.
With no evident bridge for the many gaps in EU-Turkey relations, Ankara and Brussels should use their renewed diplomatic engagement – triggered by today’s crisis – to preserve and strengthen cooperation on migration. Turkey has made clear that its capacities and tolerance for managing the humanitarian fallout from Syria are reaching their limits. The EU needs to do more to share the burden.
This article has been republished with permission from the International Crisis Group.