OPINION

Ankara must change its stance

The list of problems in Greek-Turkish relations in 2012 remains, unfortunately, quite long. Obviously this is neither a normal nor a satisfactory state of affairs, especially given that Turkey?s central objective is to become a full member of a union of democratic states to which Greece also belongs. Over the past decade, the issue of illegal immigration has been added to the list of ?traditional? points of friction between the two countries. Greece blames Turkey for not stemming the flow of illegal migrants into the country, charging infringement of conventional commitments as well as of the rules governing good-neighborly relations.

How accurate are these accusations? It is true that Turkey is one of the main transit points for refugees and economic migrants from Africa and, mainly, from Asia. The effective abolition of visas for citizens of North African and Middle Eastern countries, meanwhile, has certainly served certain Turkish foreign policy goals, but it has also facilitated illegal immigration from those countries. The stay in Turkey of all these people is not something Turkey wants, nor something they desire themselves as their ultimate destination is the countries of Western Europe or North America. Their repatriation, whether voluntary or mandatory, is admittedly no simple matter, and so Turkey appears to have opted for the most low-cost solution for it: facilitating the journey of illegal immigrants to Europe, via Greece.

No one, of course, reprimands the Turkish government for the activities of human trafficking rings, as such rings unfortunately also operate in Greece and many other countries as well. The profits to be made from human trafficking are such that only directly enforceable and strict punishments can go some way toward stemming the modern slave trade (including the sex trade).

There are, however, clear indications, which are also supported by Frontex?s European border guards, that Turkish authorities are turning a blind eye to the problem. No one can say with certainty whether authorities on the Turkish side of the border are responding to bribes or to orders from high up.

Whatever the cause, the result is the same: Greece is being flooded with undocumented migrants entering its territory either by land across the Greek-Turkish border in Thrace or by sea, landing on one of several dozen Greek islands in the Aegean. When they are apprehended by Greek authorities or by Frontex and a request is made for them to be returned to Turkey, the response from authorities in the transit country is seldom positive, despite the existence of a bilateral agreement outlining this exact procedure.

Over the past few years, Turkey has linked its obligation to cooperate with Greece and the European Union on matters relating to the control of illegal immigration to the abolition or easing of visas for Turks wanting to travel to Greece or other countries of the EU. It is true that looser visa regulations would benefit tourism in Greece. But this is not a decision that can be taken by Greece alone, especially given the well-known reservations of Germany, Austria and other European countries regarding granting Turks the right to travel freely in the EU. Either way, visa regulations and illegal immigration are two totally separate issues that should not be linked.

The Turkish stance on the issue of illegal immigration contributes significantly to Greek security issues and social stability, but also to Greece?s ties with its European partners — a situation that must stop. It is also having a negative impact on Turkey?s image in the EU, as a result of Greek demands as well as reports by Frontex and other European immigration agencies. Naturally, the most efficient solution would be a joint effort with Turkey, with financial assistance — if this is demanded — from the EU. This, of course, would not absolve the EU from the responsibility of changing the Dublin II Regulation and distributing the onus of illegal immigration more fairly across the EU.

The Turkish leadership today appears to want to change the way things are done in a number of areas. Effective cooperation between Greece and Turkey on immigration control, in combination with a reduction in other activities in the Aegean that cause friction — to no apparent benefit to Turkey — could constitute an excellent basis for a real improvement in Greek-Turkish ties.

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* Thanos P. Dokos is the director-general of the Hellenic Foundation for European