The refugee crisis at the Greece-Turkey border has been resurrected. The current state of play has developed over time and cannot come as a full surprise. The so-called Refugee Pact between the EU and Turkey has always been an instrument of power politics. It was unsustainable from the outset. The destruction of the Syrian province of Idlib will soon lead to new refugees – leaving the European Union with a political and moral dilemma. [Reading time: 6 minutes]
Images of inhumanity are reaching us from the Greece-Turkey border: gas grenades and water cannons are being used against families, unstable and crowded rubber boats are being pushed away by Greek authorities with long poles and warning shots. European border politics has become visibly brutal, and seemingly unashamedly so. How could it have come this far?
The Syrian Origin
In order to understand the current escalation, one must look at a conflict, the cruelties of which many people seem to have become accustomed to after nine years of war and destruction. The devastation taking place in Syria has continued to play out in the background, but now the spotlight is shining on the changes taking place in the north-eastern province of Idlib.
Day after day, troops belonging to the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad continue to fight their way into the last rebel-held region of the country. The front line is only 10 km from Idlib, the largest city that gives the province its name. Supported by heavy Russian airstrikes, which have targeted civilian areas and hospitals in the past, the Assad regime is close to claiming its brutal territorial victory.
As a result of this Syrian-Russian offensive, more than one million Syrian refugees are crowding the Turkish border that surrounds the province to the north and west. Many of these refugees came from more eastern areas and fled a few months ago after Turkey, with Russian help, established a so-called security zone on previously held Syrian Kurdish territory. This adds to the already high number of Syrian refugees north of the Turkish border.
In addition to the civilian refugees, the Idlib province also became the last area of retreat for opposition troops, which now consist largely of radical Islamist militias. Neither Turkey nor the Syrian regime have any interest in taking responsibility for these radical forces and bringing them to trial under the rule of law.
Turkey supports some of these radical militias, but has reached an agreement with Russia – the Syrian government’s protective power – to set up a de-escalation zone in Idlib, including Turkish observation posts. However, the Syrian military along with Russian support, have moved further into the Idlib in recent weeks. At the end of February 2020, a Syrian attack in the region left thirty-six Turkish troops dead. With this, the political circumstances have intensified once again. As a counter-reaction, heavy bombardment by Turkish aircraft and drones followed. All this pushes people out of their homes into the cold of the Syrian winter and the overcrowded refugee camps.
The EU-Turkey Agreement and the European Border Policy
Over 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011, and more than 3.6 million of these are in Turkey. As a consequence of the sharp rise in the number of refugees in Europe in 2015, the EU-Turkey Agreement, the so-called Refugee Pact, was signed on 16 March 2016. In return for financial support, a resumption of EU accession negotiations and the regular admission of Syrian refugees, Turkey promised to put an end to unregulated migration. From there on out, a divided European Union was being blackmailed by Erdoğan. Many analysts saw it as only a matter of time before Erdoğan began to use this new instrument of power politics against the EU.
According to Tunç Avcı, an International Relations student who witnessed the situation at the Turkish border a few days ago, the Turkish society recently felt the economic pressure of hosting millions of refugees becoming too much. Many Turks would, therefore, understand the move of the government to let refugees pass while at the same time feeling pity for them. Besides, European promises like loosening visa restrictions, were not held and money was withheld.
According to Avcı, most of the migrants at the border were Afghans and Iranians, mixed with Syrians and Iraqis. While the numbers from Turkish and Greek authorities differ, he assures that there must have been thousands of border crossings through cut holes in the fence. A refugee he spoke to lived in Turkey for years and now made the decision to try his luck in Germany or France.
As a result of the EU-Turkey agreement, the refugee routes shifted from land to sea – especially to the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Kos and Samos, which are close to the Turkish coast. According to the independent Norwegian NGO, Aegean Boat Report, 1,812 boats with 60,609 refugees reached the Greek islands alone in 2019. In that same period, 3,140 boats with 107,981 refugees were stopped and returned to Turkey.
Since the relocation of refugees from the islands to the Greek mainland was far smaller than the number of new arrivals, the number of refugees stranded on the islands increased. From just over 10,000 in January 2019, this number rose to over 40,000 in February 2020. Thus leading to overcrowded reception facilities and a growing counter-protest amongst the residents of the Greek islands. Today, 43,000 men, women and children are registered in Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos in camps that were originally designed for 5,400 people.
The local island authorities wanted asylum seekers to be brought to mainland Greece and then distributed throughout Europe. However, many European countries refused to do so. The ill-will is so great that even the Greek central government would prefer to isolate refugees on the islands and process asylum applications from there – although the overcrowded conditions hardly allow for this.
Philipp Hahn, employee of the NGO Mare Liberum, which operates a ship to document human rights violations in the Aegean, explained the background of the violence in a telephone conversation:
According to Hahn, the right-wing government in Athens has long since made the work of organisations operating in the Aegean more difficult, mostly by bureaucratic measures. In addition, the Greek islanders have traditionally been sceptical of the central government in Athens and also the NGOs that appeared from 2015 on.
Following, the Greek government’s plans to build new closed detention camps, massive protests on the islands commenced, both from left and right as Hahn recalls. These were suppressed by special units of the political police, provoking counter-violence, which caused the government to withdraw the police units.
In this power vacuum, right-wing mobs took over the streets, partially setting up roadblocks and started violence against NGO workers, journalists and refugees. According to Hahn’s information, program-like situations arose. Freedom of movement is restricted, violent attacks took place, and boats with refugees were prevented from landing and were shouted at and filmed by a mob.
For Hahn, the main burden is borne by the local people, about whom little information is now leaking out. It is unclear, for example, what the situation is like for the 20 000 people detained in Camp Moria and the UNHCR staff there. On Tuesday evening, Doctors Without Borders announced to preliminary stopt their operations at Moria and Mytilini camps.
On the islands, many inhabitants feel betrayed by national politics and forgotten by the European Union – and who can blame them?
Following the EU-Turkey Agreement and the implementation of a harsh European border policy in Greece and Italy, the topic of migration declined on the policy agenda of many central and northern European countries.
Apart from a small number of NGOs that help to rescue refugees with ships, aeroplanes and on-land support, Europe has turned into a guarded fortress. The relative silence around the issue has come at the expense of thousands of drowned refugees, making the Mediterranean Sea the deadliest border in the world.
Erdoğan’s Leverage and Europe’s Dilemma
With the EU-Turkey agreement, Erdoğan had an effective lever with which he could put pressure on the EU. However, the demand that Europe should take on a greater share of responsibility and also pay more money directly to the Turkish government rather than to aid organisations is only one aspect. Another is the unclear situation in Idlib. Many actors have a stake in the Syrian war, but there is currently not much hope for the civilian inhabitants.
In the coming days, a dilemma will unfold that has been feared since the signing of the EU-Turkey agreement. EU member states do not want to tolerate being blackmailed by Erdoğan. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas reacted via Twitter: “[we understand] the burden that Turkey is bearing, but it must continue to fulfil its obligations under the EU agreement. The EU is doing its part to ensure a dignified supply of refugees.”
At the same time, Europe must not lose the values it preaches as activists around European capitals raise their voices, calling for a more humane migration policy. At the same time, nationalistic, xenophobic and racist movements have gained strong support since 2015, putting pressure on governments to reduce migration. To balance these internal demands as well as the external threats by Erdoğan is politically not an easy one.
On 3 March 2020, after the confirmed death of two refugees, one of which was in one of the boats pushed back by the Greek coastguard, representatives of the European Union visited the Greece-Turkey border in order to support the Greek government in its effort to close the border once again Ursula von der Leyen promised to increase the Frontex presence. Meanwhile, the Greek government announced that it would suspend asylum procedures for a month – which is contrary to current EU law. So far, it is unclear how the situation can be resolved without someone losing in some way.
According to Hahn, the first step must be to reduce human suffering by removing the acute pressure from the border through EU membership. One possibility would be a coalition of the willing, led by the European Commission, which would make redistribution possible. Unanimous decisions are unlikely due to certain countries and should therefore not be presented as a solution. In the long term, legal possibilities for asylum applications would be necessary. The problems of origin would lie in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Meanwhile, the European border authority Frontex has already agreed to a rapid border intervention. This rapid border intervention is designed to provide emergency assistance to an EU Member State that is experiencing urgent and exceptional pressure on its external border, particularly in connection with large numbers of non-EU citizens trying to illegally enter its territory. This measure is aimed at reducing migration, but will lead to the even greater suffering of refugees if not accompanied by a legal opportunity to apply for asylum.
Independent from the political solution and reasonable arguments concerning security or migration, the European Union must not forget its commitment to unconditional basic human rights. Politicians need to face the fact that migration is not slowing down. We need a new and honest debate about the causes, patterns and results of migration. This will require that we – as students, voters or activists – make our voices heard. We must never talk about migration as if it is only a strategic, political or legal matter – it is a moral one, too.