Is the Turkey-EU migrant deal workable?

Turkey is asking a high price of Europeans who are desperate to solve the migrant crisis. The deal includes more money, easier visas for Turkish citizens, and a renewed path to EU membership.

Yves Herman/Reuters
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (l.) shakes hands with European Council President Donald Tusk after a news conference at the end of a EU-Turkey summit in Brussels March 8, 2016.

After a year in which a human wave of more than one million migrants flooded Europe, leaders of Turkey and the European Union say they have outlined measures to block the flow.

But critics say those measures may be both illegal and unworkable.

At an emergency summit that finished Tuesday, EU and Turkish leaders agreed to take “bold moves” to resolve a crisis that is tearing at the EU, where an initial welcome for migrants fleeing war in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan – has turned increasingly toward rejection.

“Do not come to Europe,” the European Council President Donald Tusk warned would-be migrants last week, setting the tone for the tougher EU response. After a week of shuttle diplomacy and 12 hours of talks with Turkey, Mr. Tusk said “we have a breakthrough now.”

But the refugees keep coming, some 142,000 so far this year, using dangerous smuggling routes and boat crossings, primarily to Greece via Turkey, that have cost an estimated 4,200 lives since the beginning of 2015.

“The problem is there is too much resistance in Europe at the moment to establish any legal pathway,” says Mattia Toaldo, a migration expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in London. “Their idea is that you can simply pull up the drawbridge and keep everyone in Turkey.”

Final approval of the tentative Turkey-EU accord is due at a two-day summit that begins March 17.

Q: What is the key trade-off of the EU-Turkey deal?

All new migrants that reach the Greek islands will be returned to Turkey, and for every Syrian sent back to Turkey, another Syrian from Turkey will be officially resettled in the EU.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu calls the deal a “game changer.” But it is seen as high price from Europeans desperate to resolve the crisis. In exchange, Turkey wants to receive twice the amount of cash – a total of $6.6 billion for three years – that was initially agreed upon to cope with both the influx, and some 2.75 million Syrian refugees it already hosts. Turkey also wants to speed up a liberalized visa regime for its citizens, and its own EU membership process, which has lost steam in recent years amid a host of human rights and other European concerns.

“We need to break the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe,” said a statement by the 28-nation EU bloc. It also declared that “irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkans route have now come to an end.”

How has the deal been received? And is it legal?

The UN criticizes what it sees as a mass expulsion of refugees from Greece as contrary to EU values, even as the union faces the largest flows of refugees on the continent since World War II.

“The collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under the European Convention of Human Rights,” Vincent Cochetel, the Europe director for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told journalists in Geneva Tuesday. Any “blanket return of any foreigners to a third country,” he said, was “not consistent” with either European or international law.

The EU says the final deal “will respect” both. But Amnesty International said in a statement the same day that the plan is “wrought with moral and legal flaws” and “makes a mockery of the EU’s obligation to provide access to asylum at its borders.”

The charity Doctors Without Borders has also been scathing, saying European leaders have “completely lost track of reality” by backing a resettlement scheme that “reduces people to mere numbers, denying them humane treatment and discarding their right to seek protection.” In a statement Tuesday the group said: “Clearly, Europe is willing to do anything, including compromising essential human rights and refugee law principles, to stem the flow of refugees and migrants to Europe.”

But is the plan technically feasible?

Not if you take into account the failure of past decisions. For example, the EU agreed last September to relocate 66,000 refugees from Greece within EU borders, yet to date only 600 have so far been moved.

NATO ships have stepped up patrols of the Turkish and Greek coastlines. On Wednesday Macedonia sealed its border – which has been more months a key gateway of the Balkans route. Slovenia and Bulgaria also tightened restrictions in recent days.

And yet refugees are also adept at finding new routes to Europe when old ones close down or fences are put up. Bulgaria – hardly a top destination compared with Germany, Austria, or Sweden – put up a razor wire fence and is now extending its 20-mile length by another 80 miles to block migrants. Still, 30,000 refugees got through last year.

“The open secret is that there will be no relocation,” says Mr. Toaldo at ECFR. “So Greece is asked to identify these people, then [they] will stay in Greece, and the EU will throw some money at the situation. Basically Greece would turn into the European Lebanon, a big refugee camp, which is not going to fly in Athens.”

The EU agreed last June to settle 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years. That was the peak rate of daily new arrivals last year, and it is just a fraction of those fleeing war and who are on the road.

Critics also say the deal gives Turkey and refugees alike little reason to stop illegal immigration, since higher numbers mean more will eventually be settled in Europe.

What are the numbers, and what pressure do they exert?

As borders close, more than 30,000 migrants have become stuck in Greece. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has said Greece will not become a “warehouse of souls.” The EU statement vows to “stand by Greece” and “do our utmost to help manage the situation.”

“I think the majority of European leaders are thinking that the only way to stop the flow is to create a humanitarian emergency, which is already happening,” says Toaldo.

He points to the grim scenes for up to 14,000 people crammed into a rain-swept camp at Idomeni, for example, which was designed for 1,500 along Greece’s border with Macedonia. And he notes that 2,500 more migrants have been arriving each day in Greece.

“If you do the math, you only need another 10 days to create a huge humanitarian emergency on top of the existing one,” says Toaldo. “I’m afraid the idea is that, once the images and footage from those camps gets to Syria, then people will decide not to come.”

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