Europe erodes Turkey’s refugee leverage, struggles with its repression

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s use of refugees and the threat of another massive migrant wave to pressure Europe to provide greater funding has lost steam as the European Union takes a tougher stance and its migrant arrivals settle into their new lives.

In a 2019 journal article, Gerasimos Tsourapas, a political science lecturer at the University of Birmingham who studies migration and diaspora communities, coined the term “refugee rentier states”, asserting that countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which have been hosting sizable Syrian refugee populations for years, had begun acting much like oil-reliant states such as Saudi Arabia.

“The way Turkey was trying to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis was very much the same way some countries that are endowed with natural resources try to take advantage of them,” Tsourapas told Ahval in a podcast.

In March 2016, as waves of refugees and asylum-seekers sought entry into Europe, Turkey struck a deal with the EU, which promised to provide $6 billion in support of Turkey’s efforts to manage its 4 million Syrian refugees.

Tsourapas said these refugee rentier states either look to cooperate with the international community or embrace a more coercive strategy. “In Turkey’s case it was much more of a blackmailing approach,” he said. “Erdoğan is very clearly sending a message to Brussels and European leaders that he believes he holds the power in this type of negotiation.”

Indeed, in February and March Turkey followed through on Erdoğan’s long-standing threat to “open the gates” to Europe, as his government urged refugees in Turkey to head toward the Greek border, which it said was open. The Turkish government hired buses to ferry migrants and asylum-seekers to the Evros River along the Greek border.

Analysts widely believe Erdoğan sought to pressure Europe into either providing more funding for the refugees in Turkey or coming to Turkey’s aid in Syria’s Idlib province, where some 2 million displaced people were living in ad hoc camps along Turkey’s border and remain there today.

But Erdoğan had failed to see how the ground had shifted. A sharp European backlash to the arrival of some 1.5 million migrants in 2015-2016 spurred the rise of far-right, anti-immigrant parties in Germany, France and Scandinavian states. Fearing the takeover of these nativist parties, European leaders responded to Erdoğan’s gambit early this year by shutting the door.

Greek security forces used water cannons and rubber bullets to keep out would-be migrants on the land border and aggressive tactics at sea to force refugee-heavy dinghies back toward Turkey. Greek aggressions may have gone too far. A London-based research group concluded it was highly probable Greek soldiers shot and killed Mohammed al-Arab, a 22-year-old from Aleppo, in March as he joined thousands of migrants seeking to enter Greece. But the end result was that only a trickle of asylum-seekers made it into the EU.

The second factor is that, as The Guardian detailed this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to welcome more than 1 million migrants – initially derided as driving the success of the far-right Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) – has largely succeeded. The new arrivals have been reasonably integrated, neither crime nor terrorist attacks have increased and, as a result, Merkel’s Christian Democrats are far outpolling the AfD.

Lastly, the European Commission is set to reveal its migration reform plan later this month, addressing the most problematic aspects, including the distribution of asylum seekers, stronger asylum processing procedures and ensuring member states bear their share of the burden.

If Europe is largely able to bolt the door and capable of handling any reasonable number of migrants that might slip through, Erdoğan’s threat to leverage refugees is rendered toothless, despite the fact that most refugees in Turkey remain dissatisfied with their lives and ready to leave.  

“He did try to do this again in March 2020,” said Tsourapas. “It wasn’t as successful as the Turkish government had hoped … Over the years this blunt kind of instrument is less likely to deliver the results the “aggressor” would seek.”

As a result, Turkey has appeared to focus greater attention on its diaspora community as a way to extend its influence in Europe. In a journal article published this week, Tsourapas lays out six tools used by authoritarian regimes to pressure and manipulate their diaspora communities, including surveillance, threats, rendition and even assassination, as in the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

Turkey embraces most, if not all, of these tools of transnational repression, particularly in Europe. German parliamentarian Seven Dağdelen last month told Ahval that Turkey has some 6,000 spies in Germany, referring to hundreds of Turkish imams, which have been accused of spying for the state, and thousands of pro-Erdoğan informants across the country. Turkish intelligence even developed a smartphone app for its German diaspora community to report possible members of the Gülen movement, which Ankara sees as behind the failed 2016 coup.

Since the coup attempt, some 15,000 Turkish citizens have fled to Germany, where they have been mostly welcomed. Yet Tsourapas details how pro-Erdoğan German Turks have issued social media calls to boycott Gülen-linked businesses, adding that a key advantage of these surveillance tools is that they are cheap.

“They don’t require high expenditure from the state’s perspective to recruit some people and offer some rewards,” said Tsourapas. “It’s very useful in creating a sense of fear and anxiety and uncertainty about the kind of people you socialise with.”

Another tool is coercion-by-proxy, in which an authoritarian state applies pressure against family members back home in an effort to silence dissidents. Turkey has used this approach against U.S.-based professional basketball player Enes Kanter, prosecuting and imprisoning his father Mehmet, who was released from prison in June.

Similarly, the wife of exiled Turkish journalist Can Dündar was treated as a hostage by the Turkish state, unable to leave Turkey and fearing for her life, according to an article Tsourapas co-authored for the watchdog group Freedom House. Dilek Dündar snuck out of Turkey last year and made her way to Berlin to meet her husband.

Kanter and Dündar have continued to speak out against the Turkish state despite its coercive tactics, but Tsourapas said this is far from the norm.

“The best instances of coercion-by-proxy never make it to the papers or the media,” he said. “We would never find out because they have already been silenced … It’s a particularly potent tool.”

Turkey has also called on Interpol to issue some 60,000 red notices against its supposed foes abroad, pressured states like Kosovo and Moldova to hand over dozens of suspected Gülenists and mounted operations to capture suspected members of the movement and return them to Turkey.

One reason the Turkish government feels free to apply so much pressure on its diaspora is that, unlike many poorer countries and despite a deep economic crisis, Turkey does not rely on the financial boost of remittances. Tsourapas pointed out that 10-12 percent of Egypt’s gross national product comes from its diaspora community.

“It really can’t afford to lose its remittances,” he said. “Turkey is the outlier here … If at some point the regime tends to deprioritise economics, then it is able to increase its emphasis on security.”

The result is a massive campaign of Turkish repression abroad, particularly in Europe. The EU appears to have significantly reduced Erdoğan’s refugee leverage, but it has thus far had a more difficult time finding ways to curb the Turkish state’s efforts to pressure and manipulate its diaspora, which often fall just short of breaking the law.

“It’s quite tough to find a solution to this,” said Tsourapas. “We’re scrambling as European states to find language and policy frameworks to respond to what’s happening.”