Op-Ed: The magic trick of the EU-Turkey deal

19 March 2018

Brussels, 19 March 2018 – This week signals the second year of existence of the so-called EU Turkey deal. European States and EU institutions present this agreement as a successful action that magically brought arrivals of forced migrants in Europe almost to a stop. Unfortunately, the true magic of the deal is that it made the suffering and injustice at the European borders become invisible. Yet they are still there, possibly got worse, and thanks to the deal policymakers have a justification not to act. 

The EU-Turkey statement, adopted by EU Member States and Turkey on 18 March 2016, is the agreement according to which Turkey committed to readmit all migrants reaching Greek islands from Turkish shores irregularly and in turn European states committed to resettle one Syrian refugee from Turkey for each Syrian person sent back. Much has been said about the lack of legality of this agreement, which defies the notions of prohibition of collective removals and of push-backs at the borders. Arrivals on the Greek islands decreased sharply. Less people lost their lives trying to cross (as less people departed). Emergency solved. Legal or not, the end justifies the means. European and national policymakers started looking into how to replicate this kind of agreement elsewhere. Italy signed a memorandum of cooperation with Libya. Recently Spain called for a EU-Morocco deal.

The fact that after only two years policymakers seems not to be able to think about reality without an EU-Turkey deal is extremely worrying on many levels. First, it feeds into a logic of externalisation of responsibilities for protecting forced migrants. Under the pretext of saving people from drowning, we cooperate with countries with extremely worrying human rights records to make sure people cannot escape. Abuses such as child labour in Turkey, slave trading in Libya, and rape and violence against women are well documented. This is the kind of hell we force people to stay in, or send them back to. Yet, it seems that if we repeat long enough that we are not responsible, we actually really start believing it.

Secondly, the emergency is not over. Sure, arrivals have decreased. But people are still dying at the EU external borders. At least 446 deaths only in the first two months and a half of 2018. For those who manage to reach our shores alive, more often than not there is no warm welcome. People are still struggling to survive in dire conditions on overcrowded Greek islands. The government refuses to move them from there to the mainland, because under de EU-Turkey agreement, Turkey only takes back people from the islands. The other European governments look away and remain silent, probably too afraid that if they criticise Greece for the conditions in which asylum seekers live on the islands, they will be asked to help doing something about it and relocate some to their own countries. At other European external borders, such as in Spain or Croatia, people are still getting cut by fences, are denied access to the asylum procedures, are pushed back, in the increasing general indifference of the media and the policymakers.

Sadly, there is no magic trick that will make the reality of forced displacement in the world disappear. We can and we should work to combat its root causes, but this will take time. In the meantime, we need to accept that people will keep coming to Europe in search of safety. We must revert the logic of the EU-Turkey deal and work towards an asylum and migration system that welcomes and protects people instead of pushing them away. Instead of compromising with our principles of human rights, we must invest energy in creating legal pathways, such as resettlement, generous family reunification policies and humanitarian visas. We must invest in inclusive policies and strive towards a cohesive society for the benefit of all, refugees and Europeans. Europe can be a space of hospitality for refugees. The experience of JRS in many EU countries shows that European citizens are already building this Europe. The policymakers must follow.

By Claudia Bonamini, Policy and Advocacy Officer, Jesuit Refugee Service Europe

We must revert the logic of the EU-Turkey deal and work towards an asylum and migration system that welcomes and protects people instead of pushing them away.