Migration crisis: major questions remain over EU-Turkey deal

The ‘one-in, one-out’ plan being discussed in Brussels is far from a done deal and will inspire little optimism among refugees

When is a blanket not a blanket? This is a question at the heart of the three-way wrangle between EU politicians, the Turkish government and refugee rights campaigners.

As the first two of the trio meet in Brussels to discuss a deal that could result in all asylum seekers who land in Greece being sent back to Turkey, there are several issues that could derail negotiations. One is Cyprus, an EU member that Turkey refuses to recognise. Another is visas. In exchange for readmitting refugees from Greece, Turkey wants fewer visa restrictions for Turks traveling to Europe – whose leaders may not play ball.

But the biggest hurdle remains the premise – and practicalities – of returning so many refugees to Turkey in the first place. Several rights groups, as well the UN refugee agency, note that the concept is illegal. Which is where the blankets come in. When the deal was first announced last week, campaigners cried foul because it would involve the “blanket return” of all asylum seekers – without assessing their individual claims, a key right that Europe has promised to uphold under the terms of the UN’s 1951 refugee convention and its own legislation.

A week on, EU officials have attempted to find a way around this. There is, a new EU memorandum (pdf) reads, “no question of applying a ‘blanket’ return policy, as this would run contrary to [international] legal requirements”.

So far, so fair. Or is it? In the very next passage, the memo then articulates a strategy that sounds suspiciously close to blanket returns by another name. If Turkey – the country from which most refugees arrive in Greece – can be designated as a “safe third country” for refugees, then each individual’s claims do not need to be rigorously assessed, and all boat arrivals can be sent back to Turkey en masse.

Campaigners such as Amnesty International feel this does little to improve the situation. Rather than changing the deal to fit the law, the interpretation of the law would be changed to fit the deal. Whatever the EU says, activists argue, Turkey is not a country that guarantees the rights of refugees.

Certainly, Turkey harbours more than 2 million Syrians – more than any other country – and gives them the status of nominally protected people. But it does not grant them all the rights they are due under the 1951 refugee convention. In several cases, it has illegally forced Syrians to return to Syria.

While a law introduced in January finally allowed Syrians the chance to apply for work permits in certain situations, Turkey does not automatically grant Syrians the right to work – a crucial right enshrined by the 1951 convention – and it remains to be seen how the new labour law will work in practice. In the meantime, most Syrians work for less than the minimum wage and have no legal recourse to stop their exploitation. This has led many to send their children to work in order to make ends meet.

Aside from the ethics of the deal, there are also serious concerns about how it would work in practice. According to the EU memorandum, Greece’s asylum infrastructure would be speedily upscaled in order to deal with the many expulsions that the new deal would precipitate. But in 2015 the Greek asylum system was already staffed at just a third of its ideal capacity – and EU countries have already broken their promise to send reinforcements. New pledges to bulk up the system to deal with a much bigger challenge therefore sound hollow.

Then there’s the much-vaunted one in, one out system. For each person readmitted by a grudging Turkey, the deal would see one Syrian formally resettled from Turkey to Europe. But how would such an exchange work, given the lack of trust between both sides? The EU’s back-of-the-envelope explanation – “a week-by-week approach could be envisaged” – does not inspire confidence.

Nor does the EU’s backtracking on the scale of the exchange. Already, Europe has said it is unlikely to accept more than 72,000 people. It has reached this figure by recycling earlier pledges to resettle the same number of people from outside Europe – pledges Europe has repeatedly failed to put into action.

Europe may be claiming it will finally manage to uphold its own promises, but the details of the deal will inspire little optimism among the vulnerable people most affected.


Patrick Kingsley Migration correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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