Since its inception, the deal struck between Turkey and the European Union to stem a tide of refugees has been labelled inhumane and illegal.
But less than three weeks into its implementation, the EU and Turkey are stumbling in their first steps, showing the weakness of the deal, which calls for the wholesale return of irregular migrants from Greece to Turkey in exchange for the resettlement of Syrian refugees now in Turkey in Europe.
Critics say the EU is breaking its own rules on expulsions and failing asylum seekers fleeing war zones. And they question whether Turkey is even a safe enough place to be sent back to.
The EU says the pact is having an impact: The number of migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece by sea has fallen sharply since February. And the closure of overland borders in the Balkans has added to the pressure on the nearly 180,000 migrants who already reached Europe this year.
So far, a few hundred migrants have have been sent back to Turkey – a process currently put on hold by Greek authorities as they seek to make improvements. The EU said Wednesday that 103 Syrians have been flown from Turkey to resettle in European countries.
Refugees stuck in Greece have been reported to say they prefer death to deportation, and have clashed with police, refusing to turn back after such arduous journeys from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Pressure, meanwhile, is growing on Turkey’s southern border, where aid workers say 100,000 Syrians trying to flee fighting and attacks by Islamic State are being blocked by Turkish soldiers and a new concrete wall.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will lead an EU delegation this week to Turkey, which has called the refugee pact a "game changer." Showing new gratitude to Turkey – and toning down criticism of its human rights record – has been a growing theme in Europe.
But for a growing chorus of critics, from charity and human rights groups to the United Nations – which is concerned that asylum seekers not be sent back to Turkey against their will – the agreement amounts to an unacceptable compromise.
“This looks like a collective expulsion, any way you cut it,” says Bill Frelick, refugee rights program director for Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Washington. “It’s using resettlement as a handmaiden for a migration control scheme. It’s not using resettlement to rescue the most vulnerable people as a humanitarian action.”
The European Convention on Human Rights, he notes, bars collective expulsions of any kind. A HRW report released on Tuesday says the first round of deportations from Greece, of 66 people from the island of Chios to Turkey, was “rushed, chaotic, and violated the rights of those deported.” It cites a UN report that 13 of deportees weren't given a chance to apply for asylum, as required by the new rules.
“The EU is trying to come up with something that looks like it is creating order out of chaos; it looks like it is managing this refugee movement in a way that shows control of borders and puts people’s minds at ease post-terrorist attacks,” says Mr. Frelick.
Despite the mounting criticism, the sweeteners remain the impetus for both sides of the Turkey-EU deal, which was finalized on March 18.
Europe gets to subcontract its refugee problem, essentially using Turkey as a buffer to absorb the refugee flow like a sponge, as it has for some 2.7 million Syrians so far. In return, Turkey gets $6 billion in aid to cope with the refugees – double what the EU first wanted to give – as well as speeded up visa-free travel for its citizens to Europe, and a revived EU membership process.
Is Turkey 'safe'?
In announcing the deal, Turkey and the EU declared that the one-to-one refugee exchanges would be conducted in “full accordance” with EU and international law.
The deal would thus be “excluding any kind of collective expulsion,” according to the joint EU-Turkey statement. All migrants would be “protected” and not forced back to a place of persecution, in a “temporary and extraordinary measure which is necessary to end the human suffering and restore public order.”
But critics say the deal does not differentiate between cases and motivations among refugees. Those who were driven to risk their lives by crossing seas that the UN says have claimed 761 lives already this year, for example, are sent back to Turkey and to the back of the line. Meanwhile, other refugees that stayed in Turkey – who had perhaps less reason or desire to go to Europe – are given priority.
Questions have also been raised for months about Turkey’s suitability as a “safe” location to be sent back to, one standard of the legality of the deal.
The EU-Turkey statement says Turkey “will take any necessary measures to prevent new sea or land routes for illegal migration opening from Turkey to the EU.” It also says the EU will work with Turkey to make living conditions “inside Syria” and close to the border “more safe.”
But that effort seemed to collide this week with the realities of the Syrian war, as Turkey expands its border wall and lets in even fewer refugees.
Shooting at the feet of Syrians
Doctors Without Borders and other aid groups estimated in the past week that 100,000 people have become trapped on the Syrian side of the border.
Turkish soldiers are reported to have fired warning shots at the feet of Syrians attempting to cross. Amnesty International stated on April 1 that it was “highly likely” that “several thousands” of Syrians had been rounded up and forcibly expelled back across the border by Turkish soldiers since January, and that Turkey “is not a safe country for Syrian refugees and is getting less safe by the day.” Turkey denies those charges of forced expulsions.
“The image of Greece and Bulgaria and Hungary building fences to keep people out sends a very strong signal to Turkey,” says Frelick of HRW.
He says Syrians are “desperately trying to get to the Turkish border to seek asylum,” but have been prevented from crossing, even as they are under attack from Islamic State and as the border camps “are being burned as we speak.”
“Turkey is violating this fundamental principle of refugee law, the principle of non-refoulement,” says Frelick. “They are showing that they do not respect this principle, and so they really cannot be regarded as a partner in a return scheme.”