As the 2016 EU-Tukey refugee deal reaches its end, it is imperative that a new agreement be reached. Refugees fleeing to Turkey to escape Taliban rule have quickly become the subject of intense debate amid deep domestic polarization and economic crisis. On the topic, we spoke with Yusuf Tatlı, a political analyst specializing in EU-Turkey relations and migration from the European Stability Initiative (ESI) in Berlin. Here, we discussed the old agreement and the possible new one, as well as the Turkish government’s migration policy and rising xenophobia in the country.
Hamdi Fırat Büyük (HFB): What is your opinion on the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal?
Yusuf Tatlı (YT): The EU-Turkey Statement of 18 March 2016 aimed to prevent drownings in the Aegean Sea and to help Syrian refugees in Turkey economically. In these areas, the statement was successful. In the 12 months before April 2016, one million people had arrived at the Greek islands and 1,512 people lost their lives at sea. In the 12 months after April 2016, these numbers dropped to 26,000 arrivals and 81 lost lives. As of April 2020, the six billion Euros promised by the EU for refugees in Turkey has been contracted and more than 4 billion disbursed.
In late February 2020, the Turkish government announced the suspension of the Statement, and decided to stop taking migrants back from the Greek islands. Although this marked the end of the EU-Turkey statement, only a very small number of migrants were able to get to the Greek islands after this. While 47,000 people had arrived on the islands in the six months prior to March 2020, only 6,000 arrived there in the 17 months since. This means that despite being inhumane and against EU and international law, the Greek pushback policy is effective in decreasing the number of arrivals.
Opponents of the March 2016 Statement in Europe and Turkey claim that without it, Syrians in Turkey would be able to cross to Europe easily. The drastic decrease of the number of arrivals on the Greek islands shows that this is simply not true. Since the Statement was suspended in February 2020, we have brutality and illegality at the EU borders with Turkey and the financial aid for the refugees and the related infrastructure is running out. This is a lose-lose-lose situation for the EU, for Turkey, and of course for the refugees.
HFB: While Afghan refugees flock to Turkey from the east, a new agreement is on the horizon. What would an ideal deal look like for refugees, Turkey, and the EU?
YT: We don’t know if they are actually “flocking” to Turkey. Yes, a considerable number of Afghans is coming to Turkey, but our sources in Van say that the number of people coming this year is not much different from the number in 2018 or 2019.
We have a proposal for a new statement. It should include both the land and sea borders of Turkey and Greece. So, we propose that Turkey should take migrants whose applications were found inadmissible or unfounded, after a new cut-off date. We also call for a Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme to be established to resettle migrants in need of protection, from Turkey to the EU. The EU should also mobilize more funding to ensure the continuation of the projects for refugees and Turkish citizens in the host communities.
Turkey, the European Commission, and interested EU member states should also set up a permanent working group to identify lasting solutions for the humanitarian crisis of internally displaced persons in Syria.
For visa liberalization, Turkey first should take the necessary steps to allow the Commission to make an appropriate proposal to European Parliament and the European Council. The issue of Customs Union modernization will be dependent on the successful implementation of a new statement and on finding a functioning conflict resolution mechanism for disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean. Your readers can find the full text of our proposal on our website.
HFB: What do you think of the Turkish government’s migration policy? Is President Erdogan aiming to use refugees as a bargaining chip in his relations with Brussels?
YT: The Turkish government does not implement a clear migration policy. Beginning in 2012, Turkey took in almost all Syrians who wanted to cross the border. However, in 2015, Turkey was struck by multiple terror attacks and public opinion towards Syrians started to deteriorate. In July 2015, Turkey closed its southern border, increased border security, and started to build a border wall. Today it is very hard to cross the border without a “temporary protection” ID.
When it comes to the eastern border, we simply do not have data to assess the policy of the Turkish government, if there is any. We do not know how many people are crossing into the country. The official position of the government is that they are taking every measure to stop irregular migrants and deport those who entered Turkey illegally. So, on the surface, the Turkish government is not “welcoming” anyone. Despite these measures, there are still crossings from Iran.
President Erdogan cannot use irregular migrants as a bargaining chip. Yes, before February 2020, he threatened Europe and then “opened the doors”. But what happened afterwards? The number of illegal crossings from Turkey to Greece fell sharply. The number of sea arrivals dropped from almost 60,000 in 2019 to 9,700 in 2020 and 1,500 in 2021.
HFB: Xenophobic rhetoric against refugees/migrants in Turkey is on the rise not only among everyday citizens but also among opposition politicians, intellectuals, and journalists. What are the reasons for this?
YT: Negative public opinion against migrants/refugees in Turkey has been on the rise for two reasons. First, Turkey has been facing persistent economic crisis over the last couple of years. This means fewer jobs for everybody. Turkish citizens see themselves in competition with migrants for these jobs and this has increased anti-migrant sentiment among supporters of all political parties. The second reason is more political. Turkey is a very polarized country. The secular segments of the society think that allowing irregular migration is a deliberate attempt by the Turkish government to shift Turkish demographics in a more conservative/Islamist direction. And yes, these segments include prominent intellectuals, academicians, and journalists. These fears are exacerbated by social media posts showing alleged migrants crossing the border, conducting themselves inappropriately, or simply enjoying themselves on the beach.
This negative sentiment against migrants is widespread. However, the government tries to counter this sentiment. President Erdogan has repeatedly said he would never allow refugees to be deported to “the hands of killers”, meaning the Assad regime. Accordingly, this issue is exploited by some people in the opposition with inflammatory speeches against migrants. Extreme examples are Umit Ozdag, an independent MP who claims Syrians and Afghan migrants/refugees are part of a large conspiracy to change Turkey’s demographics, or Bolu Mayor Tanju Ozcan who wants to charge foreigners ten times more for water. Two main opposition parties, the CHP and IYIP, have a more restrained approach. They propose making a deal with Assad to send Syrians back to Syria and to effectively close the border with Iran. However, not everybody is on the same page. The HDP is against such repatriation proposals, and DEVA is calling for a better integration policy for migrants while leaving the door open for a voluntary repatriation scheme.