The dramatically increasing refugee crisis in the Syrian province of Idlib, on the Greek islands and at the EU’s external borders shows that the EU is torn apart in terms of asylum and migration policy and is hardly capable of acting in terms of foreign and security policy. What can it still do to deal with the refugee drama? This issue has become even more pressing given the spread of Covid-19. The EU-Turkey Declaration of 2016 has strengthened cooperation with Ankara in humanitarian aid and border surveillance, but is still facing major weaknesses. A comprehensive approach is needed. The EU should focus on providing Turkey with new funding, which should be complemented by massive aid to Greece and Syria. Europeans should also work to create a protection zone in northern Syria.
As in 2015, the escalation of the refugee crisis in Greece and Turkey is related to an escalation in the Syrian civil war. The Damascus regime had launched several military offensives since April 2019 and strengthened them towards the end of the year to recapture Idlib province in the northwest of the country with the support of its allies – Russia, Iran and Iran-led militias. The aim of the Syrian leadership is to extend its own control back to the entire country. An agreement between Russia and Turkey (the „Sochi Agreement“ of September 2018) initially averted an offensive, but was ultimately unable to prevent it.
In order to counter the advancement of the Syrian army, Ankara supported Syrian rebels more and more and brought its own troops and heavy equipment to the front line from February 2020. Turkey wants to prevent a renewed influx of refugees to the borders, to underpin their demand for a protection or buffer zone in the border region and to create bargaining chips for its own presence in three areas in the occupied Syrian territory. After a massive escalation between Turkey and Syrian rebels on the one hand and Syrian armies, Russia, Iran and Iranian-led militias on the other hand, Moscow and Ankara again agreed on a ceasefire on March 5, 2020. However, it should only apply in a narrowly delimited strip six kilometers wide on either side of the M4 expressway, which connects the Syrian provincial capitals Latakia and Aleppo. Even if the ceasefire has caused air strikes and artillery fires to stop – the arrangement is not permanent and does not provide a settlement to balance the conflicting interests of the actors involved.
There is no sign of an improvement in the situation of internally displaced people in Syria. According to the UN, almost one million Syrians – around 60 percent children and 20 percent women – fled from the fighting and the advancing Syrian troops from early December 2019 to mid-March 2020. This means that around a quarter of the people in the affected areas of the Idlib and Aleppo provinces are on the run. The road to Turkey is blocked for the people. It has expanded its border fortifications in recent years and keeps the crossings closed. Around 550,000 people have sought refuge in the border region of northwest Idlib, and over 400,000 are located further east in the Turkish-controlled areas, especially in the enclaves of al-Bab and Afrin.
Many have fled again! Since 2017, around 1.5 million Syrians have been evacuated from other parts of the country to Idlib or fled from the regime in the course of so-called reconciliation agreements, which served to reclaim renegade areas through Damascus. This doubled the population of the province. Even before the current crisis, 2.8 million people were in the northwest Syria dependent on humanitarian aid. The situation of the refugees has now worsened again drastically, also against the background of harsh weather conditions. There is a lack of (heatable) accommodation, water, hygiene facilities, food and protection against attacks.
It is already foreseeable that further movements from Syria to Turkey will occur if the fighting in the Idlib province intensifies again or Damascus takes control in the northwest of the country. Then, the pressure on the border is likely to increase, the crossings of which Turkey has basically closed since March 2015, which it secured by a border wall in 2018 and where Turkey also uses violence to defend against refugees seeking protection, as human rights organizations report. The return of refugees to Syria is also likely to be restricted to long term and other people will probably want to leave the country to escape repression and persecution or to make a living elsewhere in the face of the economic and currency crisis.
Turkey is already the country that has received the most refugees worldwide. Syrians have the largest share with around 3.6 million people. In addition, there are 400,000 to 500,000 non-Syrian refugees, primarily from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Syrian refugees enjoy temporary protection in Turkey, and only around 2 percent of them live in refugee camps. They can get a work permit, but this ultimately depends on the goodwill of the employer. Compared to other neighboring countries in Syria, the school enrollment rate among refugees is high, as is the proportion of those working in the formal or informal sector. Nevertheless, integrating the Syrian refugees socially and economically is a major challenge for Turkey. In view of the deepening economic crisis in the country, the attitude of the population towards them has become increasingly hostile. As a result, the government has taken more and more measures to restrict the refugees. So they are no longer allowed to stay in Istanbul, but only in the districts in which they were originally registered. Refugees were also apparently forced to sign declarations for a “voluntary” return. They face deportation under inhumane conditions. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 87,000 refugees from Turkey returned to Syria from 2016 to January 2020. It can be assumed that a large part of them did not do this voluntarily.
The repatriation of refugees is also playing an increasingly important role in Ankara’s military offensive in its southern neighbourhood. When its operation started in January 2018, President Erdoğan said in a speech that the aim of the initiative was to “return Afrin to its real owners … and to return three and a half million Syrians to their homes”. In September 2019 – a month before the recent military invasion, Erdoğan presented to the UN General Assembly a plan for a reconstruction project designed to settle around a million refugees in a protection zone in northeastern Syria.
In late February 2020, the Turkish government announced that it would open the crossings to Greece. It lured refugees and migrants to the border with the neighboring country and provoked a humanitarian emergency there. Ankara was guided by four objectives in this approach:
The Greek government prevented refugees and migrants from entering Greece using tear gas and rubber bullets and suspended the possibility of applying for asylum for a month. According to press reports, a secret camp on mainland Greece was also used to detain newly arrived migrants and refugees and then to return them to Turkey, bypassing the rule of law. Numerous EU representatives, including EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the Council of Interior Ministers, expressed clear support for Greece’s countermeasures. Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard, has been mandated to reinforce land and sea border controls with Turkey in two rapid deployments and to intensify return operations. The EU Commission has provided 350 million euros in emergency aid for these and other measures – such as financial incentive programs for voluntary home travel, increasing the reception capacity in the Greek region of Evros and strengthening the infrastructure there for health and safety screening. As announced, this amount will be doubled by a budget shift. Delayed and reluctant, EU Interior Commissioner Ylva Johansson criticized Greece’s apparent violations of international and European refugee law. There is a risk that Brussels will assume direct responsibility for this through the growing operational involvement of EU agencies.
The immediate crisis on the EU’s Greek external border eased slightly for the time being in mid-March. For the time being, Turkey has ceased to actively seek protection and migrants at individual crossings on the border to Northern Greece. Thus, from a European perspective, Ankara’s policy, often described as an “attempt to extortion”, appears to have ended for the time being. The Turkish coast guard is also carrying out regular border surveillance. However, this should not completely stop crossings to the Greek Aegean Islands, especially since they are favored by milder weather conditions in the spring.
Living conditions for migrants and refugees in the Greek Aegean Islands are still catastrophic. The facilities (so-called hotspots) that have been set up with EU support since the end of 2015 are only designed for a good 6,000 people, but now accommodate 41,000 people. The dramatic overcrowding is an – unplanned – consequence of the 2016 EU-Turkey declaration, which stipulates, among other things, that asylum seekers are generally not allowed to be brought to mainland Greece. At the same time, the asylum procedures on the islands were extremely slow and the returns to Turkey provided for in the declaration could hardly be implemented. NGOs, UNHCR and various EU institutions have long criticized the conditions in the reception centers. In addition to overcrowding, the problems there include insufficient security, desolate sanitary conditions and inadequate access to medical care and psychosocial support. There are always accidents and fires, as well as violent riots that have claimed the lives of several people. The first cases of coronavirus infections in the Greek islands could further aggravate the situation in the camps there.
The Greek government has been considering evacuating people to the mainland for months. In the medium to long term, Athens wants to accommodate asylum seekers arriving on the islands in closed camps. However, their construction has so far largely been prevented by local protests. With the Asylum Act, which came into force in January 2020, Greece furthermore restricted reasons for staying. The use of police and the military is intended to speed up asylum procedures. Whether the Greek government succeeds in returning asylum seekers who are rejected to Turkey will depend on two things. Firstly, the Greek courts have to decide whether Turkey is considered a safe third country. On the other hand, it is important that Ankara is ready to cooperate – something that has been fundamentally questioned by the recent crisis at the common land border.
Cooperation between the EU and Turkey is urgently needed, both for the care of those seeking protection and for border security. Both sides emphasized in the course of the past crisis that the existing EU-Turkey Declaration of March 2016 – often referred to as the “Refugee Pact” – continues to serve as a frame of reference for this purpose.
From 2014 at the latest, there was a massive humanitarian emergency and a supply shortage on the part of the UNHCR, mainly due to the escalation of the civil war in Syria. Brussels’ first reaction was in the “EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis” (“Madad Fund”). The trust fund provided initial financial support for several neighboring countries in Syria in 2014, but was far from sufficient. In view of the rapidly increasing number of refugees, Brussels tried in autumn 2015 to initiate comprehensive stabilization measures with the “EU-Turkey Action Plan”. The first part of the plan aimed to improve the humanitarian situation of refugees in Turkey. This should be achieved both through European aid payments and through legal and institutional reforms in Turkey. The latter in particular were decisive in ensuring that Syrian refugees in the neighboring country were given a medium-term perspective. For example, the Turkish labor market was opened and Syrian children were able to go to school. The second part of the action plan focused on border guards and campaigns to educate irregular migrants. This was in the European as well as in the Turkish interest. Turkey wanted to avoid serving as a long-term corridor for flight and migration from various parts of the Middle East and Asia to Europe.
However, for political support and operational implementation of the cooperation, it was necessary to agree on a broader package of measures. This happened in March 2016 with the EU-Turkey declaration. In it, the Europeans specified their financial commitments; until the end of 2018, funds of a maximum of 6 billion euros could flow. In return, however, asylum applications should no longer be accepted from Syrians who landed irregularly on the Greek islands. They should be returned to Turkey as soon as possible – which has been defined as a safe third country for this purpose. Conversely, the EU should take over particularly vulnerable people from Turkey in a legal resettlement procedure, ideally in a number that would correspond exactly to that of the Syrians who were repatriated from the islands (“one-on-one mechanism”). If the irregular crossings across the Aegean were largely stopped, the prospect of further humanitarian relocations from Turkey should exist. In addition, Europeans committed to revitalize EU accession talks with Ankara, continue to deepen the customs union and speed up negotiations on visa exemptions for Turkish citizens.
EU money was spent mainly on measures in the areas of education, health and humanitarian aid. Up to 6 billion euros had been promised, according to the EU Commission, contracts for services worth 4.7 billion euros have been signed, of which 3.2 billion euros have already been paid out. The funds were granted primarily for projects implemented by UN organizations, international financial organizations and some NGOs. A good 1.5 billion euros are earmarked for government agencies in Turkey, especially for the Ministry of Education. The EU Court of Auditors emphasized in an audit at the end of 2018 that a transition from temporarily limited humanitarian aid to measures that create sustainable support structures would be necessary.
From a European perspective, the greatest achievement of the EU-Turkey declaration is that the number of irregular entries into the EU has been reduced. For many supporters of the pact, the most important argument for its continuation is that it acted as a deterrent and thus also the number the death toll was drastically reduced when crossing. The one-to-one mechanism is repeatedly mentioned as the cause of this. However, the implementation of this point was rather symbolic. By the end of January 2020, only about 2,000 people had been transferred from Greece to Turkey, a fraction of the asylum seekers on the Greek islands. At the same time, the EU took over 25,000 particularly vulnerable Syrians from Turkey. However, this was less than half of the quota originally envisaged; the main reasons for this are deficits in the Greek administration. The largest group of re-migrants consisted of Pakistanis who have no prospect of protection in either the EU or Turkey. Therefore, it remains controversial whether it is mainly due to factors other than the takeover mechanism of the pact that the number of crossings to the Greek islands has decreased significantly. The weather conditions, the improved humanitarian situation in Turkey and the increasing border controls on the so-called Balkan route could also be responsible for this development, which was already apparent in winter 2015/2016. More recently, the inhumane conditions on the Greek islands have certainly been a deterrent.
Other elements of the pact, such as visa liberalization, could not and cannot be redeemed because of the domestic political situation in Turkey since the coup attempt in July 2016. From a technical point of view, only the deepening of the customs union still seems possible, even if the economic conditions have changed significantly and there are problems with the rule of law.
Of the nine points in the pact, only the European promise of financial aid was ultimately met – and with considerable delays. The EU can point out that the vast majority of the funds have been allocated and that unpaid funds are still being paid out as part of longer-term projects. Nevertheless, Turkey can insist on urgently needed future prospects, since the first projects to directly support Syrian refugees will expire in autumn 2020. So far, the EU has not been able to agree on mobilizing new funds for Turkey. This is also due to the fact that negotiations on the next EU Multiannual Financial Framework (2021-2027) are difficult overall. The corona crisis is likely to exacerbate the situation dramatically, as comprehensive emergency and supplementary budgets are now being adopted as a matter of urgency in the member states of the EU in order to contain economic damage.
There are some suggestions for revising the Refugee Pact. The starting points are the deficits of the existing framework, which are assessed and weighted differently depending on the perspective. The points of criticism include the unworthy reception conditions in the Greek islands, the insufficient quality and length of the asylum procedure, the lack of mechanisms to monitor the agreements and the insufficient number of returns to Turkey and refugees by the EU member states are taken over directly from Turkey. Overall, according to the central accusation, the most important provisions would not be implemented – the pact as a whole would not work.
To remedy the situation, smaller or larger reforms were recommended. Very far-reaching proposals come from the European Stability Initiative (ESI), which sees itself as the initiator of the EU-Turkey declaration. The ESI advocates a new edition of the Refugee Pact, an “EU-Turkey Declaration 2.0”. For this, short and medium-term measures are necessary. The primary objectives should be to ending the humanitarian emergency in the Greek Islands by immediately emptying the camps there and avoid a new humanitarian catastrophe on mainland Greece.
To make such an approach successful, the Greek authorities would have to do two things. First, new decent reception centers and accommodations would have to be provided after the existing camps were dissolved. On the other hand, a system would have to be created that would make second-instance asylum decisions within two months. Greece would need the support of other EU countries for planning and implementation. For Syrians who, according to the ESI proposals, should be sent back to Turkey without an asylum procedure, a verification mechanism should be set up together with Ankara to ensure that the people there are treated in accordance with international standards. These measures could stabilize the situation and reduce the number of irregular entries again. In return, the EU states should keep their promise to move refugees directly from Turkey. However, this would have to be larger than previously, for example 50,000 people within the first year. In addition, a further 6 billion euros would have to be paid to Turkey to support the reception and care of Syrian refugees – the number of which is expected to increase in the coming years.
Some of these reform proposals make sense and, in particular, are to be implemented under the sign of the Corona crisis. This applies in particular to the emptying of the camps on the islands, the support of Greece in processing asylum applications, more relocations from the Greek mainland to other EU countries and further financial donations to Turkey. However, it makes little sense to continue the one-to-one mechanism from the ESI’s point of view. Nonetheless, the ESI still believes that any person who would arrive in Greece after a new EU-Turkey declaration came into force could be returned to Turkey. Experience to date shows, however, that precisely this expectation is so presupposed and contains so many uncertainties that it would not be expected that the obligations would be implemented under the existing framework. This component should therefore be avoided.
Obviously, simply reforming the EU-Turkey declaration would not be enough. Rather, it should be embedded in a broader approach from the European side. To this end, the EU must first give Greece more support. The continuing state of emergency on the islands should be ended as soon as possible by evacuation to the mainland. The almost 90,000 open asylum procedures cannot be processed without EU help. The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) has already announced that it will double the number of civil servants posted to Greece to over 1,000 by 2020. Relocation programs to other member states are required for recognized refugees. This should build on the initiative announced by seven EU countries to voluntarily accept 1,600 unaccompanied minors. EU-funded return programs are conceivable for rejected asylum seekers – insofar as the situation in the country of origin allows. Only if Greece receives effective support, the proposals for a fundamental reform of the Common European Asylum System will have any prospect of success – an undertaking that the EU Commission announced with the “Pact for Migration and Asylum” for spring 2020.
Secondly, it is in the EU interest to get even more involved in neighboring Syria. The material and social costs of the main host countries for Syrian refugees (Turkey: 3.6 million, Lebanon: 900,000, Jordan: 650,000, Iraq: 250,000) must be at least partially offset, conflicts over distribution in these countries effectively counteracted, and hasty returns to prevent a situation of insecurity in Syria, which would also overload the aid organizations there. Instead, Europeans should invest much more decisively than before in the human capital of the Syrian population in the diaspora. According to UNICEF, around half of Syrian children are currently not attending school in the country itself and in neighboring countries. Regardless of whether refugees return to Syria or remain in the current host countries, adequate schooling, training and care are essential so that they do not remain dependent on aid in the long term. In this sense, the EU should also have a dialogue with the host countries on how the measures can be made more effective.
Thirdly, it is in the European interest to help quickly and massively alleviate the refugee misery in the competitive province of Idlib and prevent Covid-19 from spreading among the refugees. Therefore, in cooperation with UNHCR, the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Program (WFP), international NGOs and Turkey, Europeans should immediately provide relief supplies and emergency accommodation for those who endure near the Turkish border under inhumane conditions. At the same time, EU must press Russia to ensure that cross-border access to humanitarian aid continues after July 10, 2020 when the Security Council resolution expires. And the Europeans should stand up to Moscow and Ankara to extend and sustain the ceasefire in Idlib, so that negotiations can be used to find regulations for the various points of conflict (territorial control, protection for the civilian population, dealing with armed fighters, etc.).
Fourthly, it would make sense in this context if Russia and Turkey undertook to create and secure a protection zone for internally displaced persons in the north of the Idlib province. Europeans should offer support for the establishment of such a zone, provided certain minimum conditions are guaranteed. Only unarmed civilians should be in the zone; it should not become the starting point for military operations, nor should it serve to return refugees from Turkey. Military action by Europeans or even NATO, as demanded by Ankara, would be rejected by Moscow (like Damascus) and would therefore not receive a mandate from the UN Security Council. Such steps risked escalating the situation rather than helping to calm it down. Nor should Europeans support Turkey’s military operations and political ambitions in northern Syria, either diplomatically, financially or militarily. Turkey has a legitimate interest in securing its border with Syria and fending off potential attacks on its territory from the neighboring country. However, their military invasions and the occupation of Syrian territory clearly violate international law.
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