If the Refugee Deal Crumbles, There Will Be Hell to Pay

A strange thing happened in the Aegean Sea last month: No refugees drowned. This modest piece of good news was, however, overwhelmed by the calamity in the Mediterranean, where 1,083 refugees drowned in the last week of May. Those poor souls, almost all African, left from Libya, a country unable to exercise control over its borders. But passage across the Aegean is controlled by Turkey, which has clamped down on trafficking in the wake of a deal it reached with the European Union in March. In 2015, 800,000 refugees crossed from Turkey to Greece. Only 5,000 have done so over the past two months.

The deal, which was first struck in private negotiations between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stipulated that Ankara would receive $3 billion to help improve conditions for refugees as well as border security, and in return would cut off the illegal passage to Europe. The EU pledged to resettle Syrian refugees currently in Turkey, while Turkey agreed to take those who had not been granted asylum in Greece. At the time, human rights groups denounced the pact as a cynical transaction designed to mollify angry European voters. An official from Amnesty International asserted that the deal was “being celebrated by people who are dancing on the grave of refugee protection who want to enforce Fortress Europe and who don’t want these refugees in our country.”

Now, three months later, we can see that the refugee deal has succeeded to an astonishing degree in choking off the flow of refugees from Turkey to Europe. At the same time, it’s done virtually nothing for the refugees who continue to languish in Greece. Is the deal, as the critics claim, a political success but a moral failure? Perhaps, so far, it is. But if the deal, now endangered, should actually collapse, it would bring even more misery to the 4.5 million Syrian refugees scattered around the region, as well as the 55,000 refugees in Greece. We should give two cheers for German pragmatism.

It is, for one thing, preposterous to suggest that Angela Merkel wants to enforce Fortress Europe. Merkel has almost single-handedly championed the cause of the refugees in Europe, and challenged public opinion in her own country by allowing more than 1 million to reach Germany in 2015. Merkel is the heroine of the refugee drama, not its villain. But she recognized that the ceaseless flow of refugees, along with the terrorist incidents in France and Belgium, had made public opinion on the subject toxic. Germany’s far-right party, Alternative for Germany, now stands third in the polls. The flow had to be stanched. Gerald Knaus, director of the European Stabilization Initiative in Berlin, says that Merkel, alone among European leaders, “understood that if you want to control the sea border you can’t do it without Turkey — and she invested in that relationship.” Merkel made it clear to Erdogan that she was prepared to resume talks on Turkey’s accession to the EU, and to finally grant Turkish citizens the right of visa-free travel in Europe, which Turkey had actively sought since 2013.

Merkel also understood that Greece was in no position to bear the entire refugee burden, which is precisely what happened as one European country after another closed its borders. Greece now has about 55,000 refugees and almost no ability to deal with them. Thousands are stranded on Greek islands, where many, including infants, are reported to be suffering from malnutrition. The deal stipulated that migrants in Greece who had not applied for asylum or whose application was rejected would be returned to Turkey.

There’s no denying that the deal allows Europe to use Turkey as its refugee sponge. Turkey already is home to 2.7 million Syrian refugees, and Europe in effect is paying the country to take still more. Turkey is a cheap solution to a problem that very few European leaders, and scarcely any at all outside Europe, have had the courage to confront. (The United States, for all the fine words coming from the White House, has accepted a grand total of just 2,500 Syrians since last fall.)

Is that gross cynicism or mere realism? Perhaps that depends on whether one thinks that political leaders have the obligation to commit suicide in the name of principle. Last month, Austria, which following Germany’s lead accepted 90,000 refugees, came within a few thousand votes of electing a far-right, anti-immigrant party to power. In Sweden, which has accepted even more refugees per capita than Germany, the single-most popular party is the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats. This is a political crisis of immense proportions. Earlier this year, Knaus says, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, “was talking about Europe like it was 1913.”

People who care about refugees should welcome an arrangement that makes it less dangerous for leaders to do the right thing. Is that the case here? Knaus argues that the only way to calm the hysteria is to remove the fear that endless waves of refugees will keep flowing across the sea. He hopes that European publics will see that accepting limited numbers of refugees will not create a bottomless liability. Already, he says, the mood of panic has begun to subside. The fact that Merkel’s poll numbers, once in free fall, have stabilized, also reassures nervous officials.

Nevertheless, if the EU-Turkey deal benefits Europe and European leaders without doing anything for refugees it will deserve all the criticism it’s received.

So far, a grand total of 280 Syrian refugees have been sent from Turkey to Europe to be resettled. That’s an almost meaninglessly minute number. Turkey has also closed the border to new migrants from Syria, shooting and beating men, women, and children fleeing from the ongoing war and confining others in camps on the Syrian side of the line. And those 55,000 refugees remain trapped on Greek islands or on the mainland, unable to move onward or to receive assistance in seeking asylum.

EU negotiators have said that Europe will not approve visa-free travel for Turkish citizens so long as Ankara continues to violate democratic standards, for example by using anti-terrorism laws to crack down on domestic dissent and imprison journalists. Erdogan, in turn, has threatened to back out of the refugee agreement if Turkish citizens don’t win the right to travel in Europe for 90 days without a visa. An EU team is now in Ankara trying to carpenter a settlement. Every expert I spoke to said that Erdogan needs the refugee deal as much as Europe does, and will accept a face-saving compromise — agreeing to delay the onset of visa-free travel or perhaps agreeing to permit individual European countries to opt out of the deal. (He is much less likely to actually change the anti-terror law, ease the crackdown on journalists, or scale back his military onslaught on Kurdish regions.)

But if Erdogan decides that Turkey’s dignity matters more than its relations with Europe, then the Turkish sponge will stop absorbing refugees. And then what?

Would Europe, faced with a crisis, finally agree to accept larger numbers of refugees? Of course not. Faced with a crisis last year, Europe panicked. If the deal collapses, every Balkan country will build walls and the refugee flow will back up in Greece, just as it was doing until March. The only solution is to embrace the deal and make it work for the refugees as well as for Europe. That means, as Knaus suggests in a recent report, close oversight of the treatment of refugees in Turkey, EU assistance to Greek authorities to speed the processing of asylum claims, and a dramatic increase in the resettlement of refugees from Turkey to Europe. Leaders, that is, must seize on the political space that the deal has created.

We already know that Europe, with the notable exception of Germany and Sweden, is not going to respond bravely to the refugee crisis. That being so, there’s no point in dismissing half-measures in the name of the moral principles to which we wish that states would adhere. Half-measures are far better than none, and Europe is going to have a hard enough time finding the resources and political will to give substance to the modest commitments it’s made. Those of us in the United States are, of course, in no position to criticize anybody.

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy on June 7, 2016

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Jun 07, 2016
James Traub
Humanitarian Crises
Europe, Middle East