Who’s failing refugees more, Turkey or the EU?

Turkey’s coast guard rescued 125 migrants from boats along its Aegean coast on Monday, its highest one-day total this year.

Last week Greek authorities stopped more than 400 migrants from crossing the Evros River into Greece, amid reports that thousands more were on the way, while Turkey’s coast guard picked up more than 380 people, a sharp increase from the trickle of would-be migrants in May.

The summer high season has arrived for those looking to slip from Turkey into the European Union, according to migration expert Vit Novotny of the Wilfried Martiens Centre for European Studies, who wondered if the apparent end of Turkey’s coronavirus crisis had spurred the government to renew efforts to push migrants to leave for the EU.

“It seems that some sort of migration pressure is resuming,” Novotny told Ahval in a podcast, referring to early June reports that 6,000 migrants had been bussed to towns near the Greek border. “We don’t know how massive this is going to be.”

The factors that led Turkey to drive some 10,000 migrants to the Greek land border in late February, spurring deadly clashes, remain in place. Some 2-3 million displaced people are still pinned between the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Turkish border in Syria’s Idlib province, threatening to force their way into Turkey should Assad resume his offensive.

Turkish citizens, many of whom turned against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its pro-refugee policies in last year’s local elections, still largely view the 3.5 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey with frustration, concerned about their own livelihoods during a deep economic downturn.

Just as some observers said Turkey was right to seek to pressure the West to respond to the Idlib crisis but questioned Ankara’s weaponisation of refugees, Novotny argued that the Greek response, which involved tear gas and water cannons and led to at least three deaths, was justified, despite significant missteps. He pointed out that Athens faced the possibility of hundreds of thousands of people streaming across the border, overwhelming its asylum system.

“First of all, we shouldn’t give into this type of external blackmail, and secondly, the capacity of our system, it just isn’t there,” said Novotny. “I would hope that fewer mistakes would have happened... But I must say overall, Greece did quite well given the scale of that problem.”

Most observers see little chance of a repeat on the scale of 2015-16, when some 2 million refugees surged into the European Union, leading to fiery public debate and a resurgence of the far-right in several EU states. Novotny sees the EU today as much less likely to be overwhelmed by such a wave, thanks to its 2016 migration deal with Turkey, a stronger border protection agency, Frontex, and a new Greek government more focused on keeping migrants out.

“I would maintain that the EU continues to be better prepared for a new migration crisis,” he said. “However, I wouldn’t argue that we are completely on the safe side; vulnerability still remains.”

One of those vulnerabilities is Greece’s Aegean islands, where some 35,000 migrants live in overcrowded camps amid squalid conditions, according to advocacy group Human Rights Watch, with poor healthcare, sanitation and access to potable water. Most are awaiting the processing of their asylum applications, which due to disagreements among EU member states, can take up to a year or longer.

Novotny acknowledged that the previous Greek government likely had an unspoken policy that deliberately sought to create a non-functioning asylum system so that most refugees would pass through Greece and head further into the EU. He said the government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had ditched this approach and embraced a more aggressive policy that aimed to develop an effective asylum system.

The Greek government has granted asylum to thousands of migrants in the Aegean island camps in recent months, after which it ferried them to the mainland and urged them to make their own way. An Athens advocacy group, the United Movement Against Racism and the Fascist Threat, said this week that the government’s policy had created thousands of homeless refugees with little chance to integrate into society.

The International Organisation for Migration has expressed alarm over reports of Greek authorities detaining migrants in Greece and forcing them back into Turkey, sometimes using violence from border personnel. One novel way Greece sends refugees back appears to be via windowless, tent-like inflatable life rafts that cannot be steered; migrants have been found floating in the Aegean in these orange vessels nearly a dozen times since March, according to a report by Just Security.

“Building an asylum system is a long-term policy,” Novotny said of Greece. “I do believe the current government is making an effort on this front, but they have to cope with years of neglect.”

Largely because of Turkish aggressions, not just along the Greek border but also in the Eastern Mediterranean, in Syria and in Libya, the EU-Turkey relationship has suffered from neglect in the last few years, according to Novotny.

He argued that not working with the Turks on immigration is not an option for the EU, and urged member states to start negotiating with Ankara and budgeting for a new migration deal, as funding for most programmes under the $6 billion 2016 deal run out next year. One suggestion he offered was that the EU distribute more funds directly to Turkey, rather than to international relief organisations.

“That would speed up the disbursement of the money, which is something (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan has been complaining about incessantly since 2016,” said Novotny. “Despite the unpleasant actions of the Turkish regime on many different fronts, we have to keep talking to Erdoğan, and we have to offer some concessions. This could be one.”

At the same time, Novotny pointed out that if Turkey wants additional refugee funding, it will need to secure the consent of all 27 EU member states to finalise another deal. Weaponising refugees is unlikely to move Ankara toward this goal.

“By taking this action, the blackmail of pushing people to the Greek border, which is also the EU border, Erdoğan is decreasing his chances to obtain that money,” said Novotny. “This makes EU governments less willing to negotiate with Turkey and to allocate money in the long-term EU budget. This becomes a game of who’s going to blink first.”

Meanwhile, the pressure of migrant arrivals is likely to linger. As long as the EU remains unwilling to take a more comprehensive approach to migration and respond to the crisis in Idlib, Novotny expects a small but steady wave of migration from Turkey to Greece that could last for an extended period and ultimately bring as many as a million more refugees into the EU.

“Without a broader solution, for Turkey, for Syria... the EU is going to have to rely on border protection, which is extremely stressful for Greece, which stands on the frontlines,” he said. “We should be ready for the scenario of a low-to-medium migration pressure continuing for months, perhaps years.”