The author of the March 2016 deal on migration between the European Union and Turkey says this may be its last chance for the agreement to work. Gerald Knaus, founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) think tank, which advises EU member-states and is also in a continuous dialogue with the governments of Greece, Germany and Turkey, spoke to Kathimerini recently, just a few days before the government in Athens announced a series of measures to tackle the fresh upsurge in arrivals.
In an assessment of the deal last spring, three years after it went into effect, you said that just 6 percent of the Syrians who came to Greece fit the profile of those who could be returned to Turkey. Can you elaborate?
The Greek mechanism defined an incredible number of Syrians as “vulnerable” (68 percent, with the majority of them being diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD). It all went pear-shaped when their vulnerable status allowed them to be transferred to the mainland as their application was being processed rather than prompting conditions on the islands. This is also the weak spot of the present government’s proposals. Conditions on the islands need to be improved because no matter how bad they are, people coming in know that if they’re patient at some point the system will not be able to take in any more people and they will be transferred to the mainland. Decisions are very slow and the previous government did not even try to implement the EU-Turkey deal. The present government now has one last chance to do so.
The ESI has estimated that some 37,000 refugees have gone missing in the last three years, only to turn up in Central and Eastern Europe. Does the deal allow Greece to arbitrarily transfer many of the people who arrive on the islands to the mainland?
The problem is that Turkey has always said it will not take back refugees who are not in camps on the islands. The question, however – as I’ve said before – is how long their asylum applications take to process. That is why there is only one thing needed now: a new date after which all applications will be processed within a specific period of time, after which decisions and returns to Turkey will be faster. We also need a joint European-Turkish and Greek mechanism to ensure that everyone who is returned to Turkey is automatically granted the protection that the Turkish government guarantees.
The Greek government believes that arrivals need to be separated between people who fit the profile of a refugee profile and those who are economic migrants so that asylum applications can be speeded up by being rejected or accepted on that basis.
That won’t work. The credibility of the proper asylum processing system needs to be safeguarded. We also need measures to speed up the system before winter sets in, because at this pace of arrivals it will then be too late. If winter sets in and inflows continue, thousands will have to be transferred off the islands. It is not an effective strategy to make the conditions tougher in a European country than they are in the countries of origin. Greece also needs to get help from the countries of the EU in order to speed up the asylum process on the islands. The fact is that in the three years of the deal’s implementation, the situation on the islands has not improved because the number of arrivals dropped and the crisis was seen as finished. That was the case not just in Greece, but in the rest of Europe as well.
The ESI has said that Greece needs to get help from countries with experience in the asylum process – such as Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark – and also assign an official who will be responsible for acting in the name of the prime minister to coordinate all the different services and initiatives.
More hands on deck are needed. Speeding up the application process is the only way to improve living conditions on the islands.
And what about Turkey?
The EU needs to give Turkey more money, because some 100,000 Syrians continue to arrive in that country every year, even after 2016.