EU should update Turkey deal as refugees threatened by COVID-19 - analysts

The European Union should update its migration deal with Turkey through increased funding and trade concessions as refugees are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, analysts writing for the Brookings Institution said on Thursday. 

Most Syrian refugees in Turkey live in densely populated urban settings with high rates of infection, and live in crowded households that make it harder to ensure good hygiene. The COVID-19 outbreak has made it harder to access livelihood opportunities - and this is likely to worsen further given the toll that the pandemic is taking on the Turkish economy, analysts Kemal Kirişci and Başak Yavçan said. 

In order to protect refugees in Turkey from the worst effects of the pandemic, Ankara and the EU should revisit their 2016 deal, in which Turkey agreed to curb the flow of migrants and refugees into the EU in exchange for six billion euros for refugee-related services and visa-free travel in the EU for Turkish citizens.

Turkey has accused the EU of failing to keep to its pledges, while the EU has said Ankara is using refugees as political leverage – in late February, Turkey opened its land borders to migrants and refugees seeking to enter Greece.

The deal is due to expire in 2021, but the precarious circumstances created by COVID-19 lend urgency to revisiting the agreement sooner, Kirişci and Yavçan said.

Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world. There are close to 3.6 million refugees in Turkey, compared to 2.9 million in all of Europe. There are also around 370,000 refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, and elsewhere. 

Even though refugees can access some free public services in Turkey, including education and health care, their lives are often precarious and this has been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

“Europe should increase funding to help Turkey support refugees, and should adopt policies (including through its trade policy) to improve refugees’ access to livelihood opportunities,” Kirişci and Yavçan said. 

They also said that the EU could extend preferential trade arrangements for Turkey, especially for goods and sectors with high refugee participation.

“Ultimately, EU-Turkey cooperation that strengthens the chances of refugees meeting their basic needs and that improves their self-reliance through decent and sustainable work is in the interest of all parties,” Kirişci and Yavçan said.

In Turkey, this could help reduce resentment of refugees, boost their income, and spark economic growth. For the EU, it could reduce the likelihood of more refugee influxes and the need to keep raising funds for humanitarian aid. 

“The benefits of updating the EU-Turkey deal are clear, as well as the need to do so. All that remains is the willingness to act,” Kirişci and Yavçan said.