On Wednesday, March 4th, 2020, Reuters reported, “Greece uses tear gas on migrants at border as row with Turkey worsens”.
The confrontation came to a head after Turkish officials announced, on February 28th, that Turkey would no longer abide by the 2016 agreement to prevent migrants from crossing into Greece. Der Spiegel said that Turkey told migrants that the European border was open and even chartered buses to bring hundreds of migrants to its shared border with Greece. Greek border police responded with tear gas to push the refugees back, while Turkish border guards used tear gas to push Greek border guards back and the migrants forward.
Political tensions flared as Ankara accused Athens of killing two migrants and wounding 5 more; Athens and the European Union (EU) claim Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ‘pushed’ the refugees to the border as leverage for more political support for the war in Syria and more financial support for housing refugees in Turkey. The confrontation has forced the EU to walk a tightrope between appeasing two NATO members (Greece and Turkey) – who no longer have the political will nor the resources to take on more refugees – and right-wing populists within EU member states. The latter are fervently opposed to any immigration while trying to avoid another crisis like 2015 when more than 2 million migrants streamed into the EU seeking asylum.
EU commissioner Ursula von der Leyen offered Athens 700 million euros in support of migrants remaining in Turkey. Yet, EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles offered Turkey a paltry 60 million euros to stem the flow of refugees. The chaos and politics, however, aren’t the real issues here. The EU manufactured this current crisis back in 2016 when it offered Turkey 6 billion euros in exchange for housing all of the migrants coming out of the Middle East, but then never made a long-term plan to settle the migrants. Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Security Studies (IISS) sums it up succinctly for the Financial Times, “you feel in western policy circles that people are wishing Syria away.” Ursula von der Leyen in a Reuters article even called Greece “Europe’s shield” against migrants when she offered Greece almost ¾ of a billion euros to keep the migrants out of Europe. It’s the attitude that migrants are an unwelcome burden and someone else’s responsibility that is the real issue.
Reactions to Turkey’s announcement has been swift. Foreign Policy’s Paul Hockenos commented, “there is no excuse for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s brute attempts to blackmail the EU.” Reuters reported that French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian expressed outrage at Turkey for using people as political leverage and yet Turkey’s announcement should not have come as a surprise.
Amnesty International (AI) estimates Turkey hosts the 3rd largest refugee population (measured per 1,000 inhabitants) in the world and is home to more than 3.5 million refugees, mostly from Syria but also Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and other Middle Eastern countries. Furthermore, the ongoing conflict in Syria threatens to send even more refugees to Turkey. As a result, President Erdogan has often threatened to allow migrants through. The AP reported the president as saying, “We will be forced to open the gates. We cannot be forced to handle the burden alone.”
Omar Kadkoy, a migration policy expert at Ankara-based think-tank Tepav, told the Financial Times (FT) this wasn’t even “…the first time that Turkey has utilised the card of refugees for support or political gains.” Indeed, Liam Partuzzi of the Migration Policy Institute Europe think-tank reiterated to the FT what critics have been saying since the inception of the 2016 agreement, it is unsustainable: “This once again goes to prove the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee agreement is hardly a sustainable solution to the humanitarian crisis at the gates of Europe.” It wasn’t only the number of refugees that were unsustainable, it was the financial burden as well. President Erdogan claims the 6 billion euros Europe paid over the last four years make up only a fraction of the more than 30 billion euros Turkey has spent for housing what are mostly refugees from wars started by Western powers.
In 2015, the EU’s external border force, Frontex estimated 1.8 million refugees mostly fleeing the Syrian civil war streamed into Europe by two main routes:
- The Mediterranean route from North Africa then across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy or Greece.
- By the less dangerous Balkan route through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary.
The number of refugees, however, was too much for the EU’s dysfunctional asylum system and highlighted the political divisions over immigration within member states. Horrific images emerged from that time: a truck abandoned on the autobahn with the bodies of 71 migrants inside; the body of Alan, a three-year-old boy who drowned, being carried off the beach in Turkey; a Hungarian reporter that was photographed tripping a migrant as he ran from police; and migrants sleeping on the streets of Paris awaiting their asylum hearings.
By 2016, 2500 people died trying to enter the EU, while hundreds of thousands were stranded in overcrowded detention camps with unsanitary, violent conditions that were incapable of processing asylum request, and unable to keep migrants safe. Deutsche Welle (DW) reported slavery, forced prostitution, and violence by guards in a Libyan camp. Pope Francis visited that same camp and called for its closure. The Associated Press quoted the Pope as saying, “they were places where would-be refugees are dying slowly from ignoble torture and slavery.”
The camps in Greece, like Moria, were and continue to be no better. Tens of thousands of refugees crowded into a facility designed to accommodate only a couple of thousand. A place where violence, theft, and unsanitary conditions have become the norm. By the end of 2016, the EU under the direction of Angela Merkel forged an agreement with Turkish President Erdogan whom Der Spiegel describes as a “despot.” In exchange for 6 billion euros of aid, Turkey agreed to stop migrants from entering the EU and resettle them within Turkey. Europe also committed to resettle up to 72,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey to be distributed among EU member states and send the same number to Turkey from Greece. The EU also promised to drop visa restrictions for Turkish citizens entering the EU as well as agreeing to speed up Turkey’s EU membership application process. The EU and German Chancellor Angela Merkel saw the agreement as a win at the time. It stopped the influx of migrants, appeased the far-right populists like the Alternative for Germany, and bought some political breathing room. Yet Amnesty International and Oxfam criticized the 2016 agreement calling it dangerous, illegal, and inhuman. DW’s Barbara Wesel wrote a prophetic Op-ed in 2016 claiming the agreement gave all control to Ankara: “The EU, however, will have lost all leverage should Turkey begin to push people back into Syria or Iraq…” In this case, Ankara pushed them into Europe and kept them back from Turkey.
The EU paid a steep price to gain political ‘breathing room.’ During the 2015 crisis, Chancellor Merkel was hailed as heroic for opening the borders to so many refugees. Germany alone resettled over 470,000 refugees in 2015. Some even called her ‘mother.’ However, the agreement with Turkey amounted to outsourcing the care and well-being of millions of people to an autocrat not known for his value of human rights. This cost Europe its reputation, moral high ground, and control. From the very beginning, the agreement was meant as a temporary measure. Yet, instead of using the high-priced reprieve to plan for the eventual resettlement of migrants, the EU did nothing.
Now the EU is once again facing a migrant crisis. The solution this time must be a more durable and holistic result. Unfortunately, it will be neither easy nor inexpensive. The next steps are prioritizing the safety of the migrants. Ensuring adequate infrastructure and resources – like better housing facilities, increased personnel to process asylum cases, and better security within the camps – are available in gateway countries like Italy, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Libya. Finally, resettling displaced persons must be everyone’s responsibility.
As has been witnessed, indefinitely concentrating migrants into only a few countries, results in not only a political backlash that makes it unsustainable, but also a popular backlash that results in violence against refugees. Additionally, during the 2015 crisis, some EU member countries refused to accept any migrants. EU membership could be contingent upon sharing the responsibility. Furthermore, the war in Syria happened with the participation of the U.S., and Russia. Both regions should accept greater responsibility for the safety and resettlement of refugees.
According to the Pew Research Center, before the Trump administration, the United States accepted more migrants annually than all of the other countries combined. This year the U.S. will accept only 18,000 refugees, most of which are not Muslim. Pew reports this is the “lowest number of refugees resettled by the U.S. in a single year since 1980 when Congress created the nation’s refugee resettlement program.” Russia has to this day granted refugee status to only 1 Syrian.
The wealthy nations of the world can and must do more for people ripped from their homes. Often, as in the case of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, it is the wealthy nations of the world who are at fault. Unfortunately, wealthy nations use poor nations as ‘dumping grounds’ for unwanted refugees. AI estimates 86% of refugees are hosted by poor, mainly Middle Eastern, African, and South Asian countries. If wealthy nations shouldered the responsibility for their actions, maybe they would pause before going to war.