The EU-Turkey migration deal one year on: Is the jury finally out?

The EU-Turkey migration deal one year on: Is the jury finally out?

This week marks the first anniversary of the so-called EU-Turkey Statement on Migration. Building on the “one in, one out” principle, the main tenet of the agreement is that for every Syrian in an irregular situation readmitted by Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled in the European Union from Turkey. The underlying principle of the scheme at the time of its drafting was that it would prevent Syrians from resorting to ruthless smugglers to cross the Aegean Sea and that a legal and safe route for entering the EU would be established.

On paper, and despite the barrage of criticism it had started to generate even before its inception, the deal seemed at least innovative, proactive and timely in a context of unprecedented mass migrant arrivals bound primarily for Greece’s shores, and after several months of relative political inaction from the EU executive and the member-states.

So, one year on, what is the verdict? Has the EU-Turkey migration deal held its promises and comforted its original founders and supporters or has it merely confirmed the fears of its countless opponents?

Looking strictly at the figures, few would question the effectiveness of the scheme to date: The average number of daily migrant arrivals from Turkey into Greece has been reduced from up to 5,000 at the height of the crisis in 2015 to about 70 in March 2017. If this was the objective to achieve, in purely statistical terms and in isolation from a range of other considerations, then it is most definitely “mission accomplished.”

However, few would dispute that the EU-Turkey deal was probably not meant to be solely, or even primarily, a statistical exercise. The humanitarian costs and possible legal prejudices of the EU-Turkey migration mechanism to date have been and continue to be extensive and varied. While such unintended, but according to some predictable, outcomes have been largely documented over the past 12 months, suffice it to mention only the latest report that was published by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), and Oxfam this week. The joint report highlights, among many other failings: the persisting gaps in legal counseling and assistance to navigate the asylum procedures; the situation of unaccompanied children; a range of other rights violations; the appalling accommodation conditions; and even the suboptimal expertise and quality of interviews conducted by EU asylum professionals sent to Greece.

This is in addition to the growing backlog of pending asylum applications in Greece and to persisting questions about the use made by agencies operating in the field of the very substantial financial resources disbursed by the EU to date. As of mid-March of this year, some 14,115 people – almost double the official capacity – were still living in ad hoc facilities on Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros, while over 62,430 people were stranded across Greece.

Has the time therefore come to revisit some of the fundamentals of the EU-Turkey agreement? Or should it simply be assumed that the days of the agreement are now numbered anyway? In addition to the mounting threats by the Turkish authorities to suspend their implementation of the agreement, the Greek Council of State’s judgment next month about whether or not Turkey should be considered a safe third country will no doubt determine the viability of the scheme.

While such possible fallout would not come unannounced, since many in the EU institutions and member-states had started to anticipate, if not plan for, such an outcome several months ago, its effect on ongoing EU migration policy developments would of course not be inconsequential. However, would a suspension of the EU-Turkey agreement necessarily mean a return to the so-called migrant crisis of 2015?

Not necessarily. Should the EU-Turkey deal indeed be suspended or revoked, the shock and confusion in Brussels and in the member-states might prove very significant. It would no doubt encourage many of the member-states that had been so reluctant to adhere to most of the EU’s political solutions to the migrant crisis to date, including the Resettlement and Relocation plans, and the Schengen and Dublin systems, to revisit their positions. It would also likely bring them to the negotiating table to address such a new crisis and to avoid a repetition or escalation of the levels of mass migration observed before the EU-Turkey agreement.

While the European Commission has always denied having any plan B in the event the agreement with Turkey should fall through, the political and humanitarian situation that would result from a suspension of the agreement would no doubt prompt the EU executive and the member-states to envisage a much more ambitious, viable and consensual set of measures to address a possible resurgence of the crisis. Not least in view of the concurrent expansion of a migratory front in the Central Mediterranean. The EU and the member-states would be even more propelled to do so given that a reliance on the active cooperation of major transit countries such as Turkey, despite its merits on a strictly operational front, would have shown its political limits and constraints. This is in addition to the fact that a similar cooperation agreement could not even be negotiated with Libya in the current absence of any viable government and stable institutions.

It is also likely that a possible suspension of the EU-Turkey agreement would lead to both additional border control measures and to new approaches to existing resettlement models. The former might include stepping up ongoing efforts by the EU Border Agency and NATO by surveilling migrant boats as closely as possible to the Turkish coast and getting people safely off the boats at the start of their journey.

In terms of new approaches to resettlement, one option would be to expand the geographic scope of existing EU Resettlement/Relocation schemes to key non-EU host countries. The idea would be to make use of all current and future EU cooperation and partnership agreements with third countries to incentivize them to participate in the EU resettlement scheme. This would include not only traditional host countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia, which to date have resettled relatively limited numbers of Syrians and Iraqis, but also major countries in the south, particularly in the Gulf region.

All of the above policy options would likely be facilitated by the gradual development of a “multi-speed Europe” called for by French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which would potentially reduce some of the current obstructions to the development of a fully fledged EU immigration policy and to the principle of responsibility sharing enshrined in EU law. They would also be facilitated by a more active resolve to break the ongoing dialogue of the deaf between European policymakers and civil society actors who are increasingly pointing to the dangers of entrusting third countries with a poor human rights record and an often discretionary use of rule of law with a major component of the EU’s immigration control policy. One way of responding to the broadening criticism which is currently weakening the EU’s cooperation strategy with third countries would be by developing a fully fledged set of fundamental rights guidelines and monitoring mechanisms to review the EU’s systematic compliance with adequate human rights standards, the principle of non-refoulement and fair access to suitable asylum procedures in the implementation of current and future migration management policies.

* Solon Ardittis is managing director of Eurasylum and a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA). He is also co-editor of Migration Policy Practice, a bimonthly journal published jointly with the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

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