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Throughout the month of August, tensions between the European Union and Turkey continued to mount over the controversial refugee deal they had signed in March 2016, as Turkish President Recep Tayyid Erdogan threatened to withdraw from the deal unless the EU accelerates their promised visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens. On August 26, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) raised concerns about whether this deal would fall through.
The UNHCR’s red flag warning is in response to an earlier disagreement in which Erdogan threatened to pull out of the deal since the EU placed its promise of visa-free access on hold following the violent crackdown on thousands of anti-Erdogan dissidents and civil servants in the wake of the abortive July 15 coup. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu argued that Turkey was promised that the visa-free access would be implemented in October, accusing the EU of not sticking to its promises.
While the coup did much to strain EU-Turkey relations, the EU-Turkey refugee deal was already shaky since its inception. The deal was signed on March 18 between the EU’s 28 members and Turkey as a response to 2015’s catastrophic refugee crisis, in which one million war refugees and economic migrants fled across the Mediterranean to the EU, overwhelming an underprepared continent. In exchange for the EU liberalizing visa restrictions for Turkish citizens, resumed EU membership accession talks, and a multi-billion euro fund earmarked for refugees, Turkey must accept all new migrants from Greece who arrived after March 20. Additionally, the deal implemented a “one-for-one” plan, where one Syrians from Turkey will be legally settled in the EU in exchange for one Syrian in the EU being settled in Turkey. This deal is only for Syrian refugees fleeing their homeland’s civil war, and explicitly excludes economic migrants from the Middle East and Central Asia.
It should not be surprising that this refugee deal would generate so much tension between the EU and Turkey: in a larger sense, this deal is the convergence of a number of separate issues between the two blocs. For one, much of the EU’s incentives for Turkey is premised on the longstanding issue of Turkey’s accession to the EU, which is conditioned on Turkey’s adherence to the EU’s standards of human rights. In response to Turkey’s increasingly undemocratic and authoritarian measures, on May 23, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that the EU’s promised visa-free provision (originally scheduled for July) would be put on hold until Turkey would fulfil a number of conditions, including narrowing its draconian anti-terror laws. The coup’s merciless aftermath thus added further fuel to an already tense situation, as at least one European Commissioner considered the deal to have “fallen off the agenda due to the post-coup purge.”
Yet, the deal is also jeopardised by both sides being unable to fulfil their side of the bargain, with regards to hosting refugees. Whilst bureaucrats and leaders in Brussels and Ankara squabble over grand geopolitics, Syrian refugees and economic migrants from elsewhere continue to suffer. Neither Greece nor Turkey has the adequate infrastructure required to process such large numbers of refugees, leaving the refugees trapped in detainment camps indefinitely, in poor living conditions and without hope for gaining asylum. Amnesty International has long argued that Turkey was not a “safe country” for refugees since refugees are trapped in a state of legal limbo with neither hope of repatriation nor of building a new life in their host country. On the other hand, Greece’s “hotspot” detainment camps—Lesbos, Chios, Leros, Samos, and Kos—have sanitary conditions so substandard that their Center for Disease Control suggested they should be closed. The asylum processing bureaucracy has fallen significantly behind schedule, leaving refugees trapped in these abysmal conditions indefinitely.
It is clear that in dealing with Turkey, the EU is caught between a rock and a hard place in trying to manage its commitment to humanitarian principles and hard realpolitik. But, as political posturing and negotiations threaten to extend an already lengthy political deal, politicians on both sides should not forget that real lives and livelihoods are at stake.