OPINION

Turkey?s fight against illegal immigration

Illegal migration is a hot topic in Greek society these days, especially in an environment of economic crisis, due to its adverse social and economic repercussions. Like many other developed countries, Greece is facing complex problems emanating from this social phenomenon. On the other side of the coin, good people who usually have nothing more on their mind than to earn a living for themselves and their families are exploited and, more often than not, undergo serious ordeals in order to find jobs or reach more affluent parts of the world. Of course bona fide asylum seekers are a totally separate category, and all measures must be taken to protect such people who are fleeing persecution. It is the human smugglers who exploit the needs of migrants, upset local economies and profit from the suffering of others. In this complex picture, in Turkey we have no doubt in our minds that illegal migration must be combated, economic migrants must be sent back their homes and the smugglers must be brought to justice. It is, however, an indisputable fact that tackling this problem is out of the reach of a single country and requires serious and active international cooperation.

In this context, I believe that it would be in order to revise what is being done between Greece and Turkey to combat this scourge. To do so we must try to answer some tough questions, such as: ?Is Turkey really not guarding its borders and turning a blind eye to illegal migration?? or ?Is Turkey not cooperating properly with Greece on illegal migration?? or simply, ?What else can be done??

First of all, allow me to correct a widespread misunderstanding: Turkey itself is not the source of illegal migration. In other words, it is not Turkish citizens that use these routes. It is third-country nationals. Turkey is located on the transit route of illegal migration and, especially in recent years, has become a target country due to its vigorous economic growth of around 10 percent per year. Consequently, Turkey suffers from this phenomenon, and illegal migration has similar negative effects upon the public and social order within Turkish society. It might not be as visible as in Greece because of the size of the country and because economic growth can absorb a certain amount of illegal migrants for the time being. But these people do compete for valuable jobs at the expense of our citizens. Therefore, it is definitely in Turkey?s interest to put a stop the flow of illegal migration, and we are indeed taking decisive steps to combat it.

It goes without saying that those steps require us to first put our own garden in order. To this effect, we have improved our administrative and legislative framework. An Umbrella Council among competent Turkish authorities was established in order to overcome shortcomings in local coordination. The number and sheltering capacity of the Return Centers have been increased. Training programs for the personnel of these centers were organized, and a more efficient internal inspection system was instituted. Furthermore, with amendments introduced to the Penal Code in 2010, attempts of human smuggling were also defined as a ?full crime,? which increased the deterrence of the Penal Code, particularly for smugglers. The amendment increased the duration of the sentence to an amount that will be half to two-thirds longer than the usual sentence time, when the crime puts the life of victims in danger and is committed in an inhuman manner.

In parallel to these regulations, efforts on the ground have also been intensified. In the last 15 years 850,000 illegal migrants and 12,000 human smugglers have been apprehended by Turkish security forces. For the last five years those figures are 200,000 and 5,000 respectively. The efforts of the Turkish Coast Guard, together with the Greek Coast Guard and Frontex, have played a decisive role in decreasing the illegal migration flow by 70 percent via the Aegean Sea, which is no more an important transit route for illegal migrants.

However, the flow of illegal migration, like when a river is blocked, by nature tries to change its downstream course, which has now become the Turkish-Greek land border. Aware of this fact, we have intensified our efforts on the common land border with Greece and established close cooperation with the relevant Greek authorities. The number of illegal migrants detained on the 12.5-kilometer land border strip, where the illegal flows were most frequent, dropped from 15,000 in 2010 to around 800 in 2011. This is a dramatic drop by any standard.

Nevertheless, we believe that those efforts are not sufficient. This time migration has shifted to the Evros River areas and we will not cease to work until the figure drops to zero. This is an ambitious target and, in all fairness, is not feasible if not strengthened with a further technologically advanced and well-funded comprehensive international cooperation program.

With this understanding, we consider the Readmission Protocol with Greece as a significant tool in displaying our joint deterrence. The opening of the Dikili/Izmir Readmission Sea Port in 2010 has played an important role in decreasing the number of illegal migrants flowing across the Aegean Sea. Our cooperation has gained new momentum with the signing of the Joint Declaration between the Interior Ministry of the Republic of Turkey and the Citizens? Protection Ministry of the Hellenic Republic, in May 2010.

The frequency of meetings between Turkish and Greek authorities without any doubt reflects the level of intense cooperation. Competent authorities of the two countries have convened more than 10 times at local and central levels since May 2010. Through these meetings, direct lines of communication have been established between local and central law enforcement agencies of the two countries. There is regular telephone and e-mail communication between our authorities, to coordinate common efforts. Most recently, contact persons have been assigned between the Turkish Armed Forces in the region and their Greek counterparts, in order to coordinate their operations. The significant decrease in illegal crossings on the land border is a concrete and promising outcome of the cooperation between our two countries. We are now in the process of further improving our efforts throughout the Evros River region.

We are also willing to improve our cooperation with other EU countries that are facing the same problem, as well as with the European Commission. We emphasized our determination to cooperate against the illegal migration at the meetings held during the visit of Mr Stefano Manservisi, European Commission director-general for home affairs, to Turkey in March 2012. We agreed to hold meetings every six months with the European Commission on illegal migration. We already organize regular meetings with the Greek and UK authorities every six months on this issue and agreed to hold similar regular meetings with Austrian and German authorities as well. We initialed the Cooperation Memorandum with Frontex on March 15, 2012, and our contacts continue to establish close cooperation with this agency.

Furthermore, we are ready to increase the number of common projects with the EU and initiate programs with transit and destination countries that are located on migration routes. We believe that close cooperation with the EU will become an efficient deterrent factor to illegal migration flow toward our region. We consider the Readmission Agreement with the EU as an important tool to this effect.

At this point, I think it is also necessary to distinguish between the illegal migration flow and the visa requirement. We must bear in mind that illegal migrants do not respect visas, passport formalities or borders. Despite our every effort, unfortunately a trickle of illegal migrants find ways to overcome our measures and enter the EU. This proves that visas are not much of an obstacle in that sense. Visas only deter bona fide travelers and spending tourists from coming to Greece or other EU countries and contributing to the economy. Following the decision to abolish the visa requirement to travel to Greece for the bearers of special (green) passports in August 2010, the Turkish tourists visiting Greece increased by 180 percent within a few months and 50 percent more the following year, reaching 500,000 Turkish tourists to Greece a year. If we apply the same procedure for ordinary passports, we could double this number within a year. I strongly believe that this would mean a timely and healthy injection of cash to the Greek economy. Wherever I visit in beautiful Greece, there is a desire to receive more high-spending Turkish tourists.

Needless to mention, the removal of visas would also have a multiplying effect on our economic, trade and investment relations. I know from firsthand experience that Turkish businessmen are deterred from investment in Greece, mainly because of the visa obstacle. They simply do not want their staff who will have to visit their factories or investments in Greece to have to join visa queues and thus lose time and money. If we could find ways to overcome resistance from some other EU members and solve the visa issue, there is strong potential for Turkish investment in the tourism field and others. It is impossible to quantify the damage this visa obstacle does to the Greek economy, because a lot of business simply does not materialize and there is no benchmark from which to make a comparison for something that has not happened. Furthermore, abolishing visas for Turkey would result in an alignment of our visa systems, and this would help in combating illegal migration further to the east.

In light of the above, I believe the answers to claims such as ?Turkey is not guarding its borders against illegal migration? or that ?Turkey is not cooperating with Greece? are self-evident. I believe that we must continue to work earnestly and patiently to combat and end illegal migration, which is a dynamic phenomenon, constantly finding ways to overcome the obstacles we throw in their way. Finger-pointing, which is also displayed toward Greece by other European countries, is a zero gain policy. If we sincerely want to deal with this problem, we should in the first place fully understand that illegal migration is an international problem, and international cooperation is needed to combat it, rather than blaming each other, becoming introvert, and giving in to intolerance, xenophobia or racism. As Turkey, we are ready to further improve our cooperation both with Greece and with the EU to tackle this issue.

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* Kerim Uras is the ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to Greece.