Migration Crisis: Erdogan testing Europe’s resolve

The need for the EU to develop a coherent response to migration has re-emerged at its border. Erdogan’s move to open the Turkey-Greece border at Evros for, in his words, “millions” of refugees has made evident that any EU approach to migration is unequivocally tied to Syria and EU-Turkey relations. The main discussion across Europe now is, if the EU-Turkey migrant deal should be renewed or replaced. But things have changed in the past four years, not only when it comes to migration policy.

While the presidents of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, Parliament David Sassoli, and Council, Charles Michel once again reiterated the importance of joint collaboration and coordination regarding the migration crisis, the lack of a concerted EU approach is exactly what led to the current status quo. For over four years national policies and sensitivities have prevented the creation of a common EU migration and asylum policy.

At the peak of the previous migration crisis in 2015, checks at Europe’s internal borders were reinstated for a brief period of time due to national public and political discontent. The Dublin Regulation, that determines the responsibility of EU member states regarding asylum processes within the union, was, and continues to be a paper tiger. It has proven to not only be inefficient, but has also been widely criticised by UN and NGO bodies, and never successfully dealt with mandatory or permanent quotas for solidarity measures.

EU data revealed the magnitude of migration flows in 2015: 1.32 million asylum applications and 1.82 million recorded irregular entries. While the EU-Turkey deal, signed in 2016, has severely reduced the number of people seeking asylum, it has faced heavy criticism by international organizations such as Amnesty International, UNHCR, Médecins sans Frontières and many more for violating international law. The “quid pro quo” nature of the deal, in which visa free travel for Turkish citizens to the EU, financial support for accommodation, treatment of asylum seekers, and an upgraded EU-Turkey customs union were used to entice Erdogan to reduce the influx of asylum seekers, led to widespread condemnation by international organisations and NGOs.

Erdogan has repeatedly accused the EU of not fulfilling its part of the deal, especially with regards to funding, Visa-free travel, and the Turkey-EU customs union. However, Turkish policy decisions have made it extremely challenging for the EU to live up to its side of the bargain. The most fundamental issue is, if Turkey can still be viewed as a safe third country. This should be discussed: widespread imprisonments and imposed emergency rule after the failed coup in 2016, the unilateral decision to embark on a military campaign in Syria, activities against certain Kurdish groups that are viewed as allies by the EU, and finally the creation of a “safe zone” to relocate asylum seekers within north-west Syria.

The conflict in Syria is the root cause of the migration crisis. Both in 2015 and today. However, realities on the ground are completely different today than they were four years ago. While what is unfolding in Idlib is a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable proportion, there are no serious heavy battles outside the province of Idlib. Granted, it is uncertain if the recent ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey will improve the situation on the ground. Thus, the newest chapter of this years-long crisis has been fuelled by Erdogan and his government. First by meddling in the Syrian quagmire, by shunning their NATO allies and by moving closer to Russia. Just as things have changed in Syria and Turkey, the same is true for Europe and Greece. Back in 2015, uncertainty prevailed, and Europe didn’t have a compass to show policy makers what outcomes certain decisions would have. Furthermore, there was uncertainty revolving around what individual member states and their governments wanted. Things have become a bit clearer now.

Erdogan’s decision is viewed by many in Europe as a form of political blackmailing. German Chancellor Merkel’s statement to reporters a few days ago made this quite clear: “I understand that Turkey is facing a very big challenge regarding Idlib. Still, for me it’s unacceptable that he — President Erdogan and his government — are not expressing this dissatisfaction in a dialogue with us as the European Union, but rather on the back of the refugees. For me, that’s not the way to go forward.” In spite of Erdogan’s strategy to turn Turkey’s problem into a European one, it appears that the EU is still ready to renegotiate its deal with Turkey (as the visit of Josep Borrell in Ankara where he pledged to provide Turkey with more funding indicates). Although Mark Rutte, Netherland’s prime minister and architect of the 2015 deal, highlighted that Europe cannot renegotiate with “the knife at its throat”. And in Greece, a new government ushered in a new approach. From day one, the conservative executive of Kyriakos Mitsotakis treated migration policy solely as a matter of security and defence. The situation in Evros, plans to build closed migrant camps using appropriated land on islands that border Turkey, and the decision to suspend dealing with new asylum applications for 30 (possibly a breach of EU and international law) is emblematic of the recent policy shift.

In Lesbos, Chios, Samos and in other places these new government plans are met with fierce resistance by the local population. The government sent in the riot police and banned the transfer of people from Moria and other Reception and Identification Centres (RIC) to mainland Greece. Unsurprisingly, this has amplified tensions and increased animosities between locals and asylum seekers. Asked for comment on the rapidly unfolding situation, Yannis Bournous, a MP of the Syriza party stated that “although the presence of EU leaders in Evros is a step in the right direction, the EU’s migration policy as well as the Greek approach have been a total failure up to now. The only result from all this is that most of the 700 million euros given to Greece by the EU, will be spent for the construction of closed migrant camps.”

In Lesbos and in the RIC of Moria where more than 20.000 asylum seekers are living in dire conditions, things are getting worse by the day. Natasa Papanikolaou, a journalist working for “Politika” a local newspaper, confirmed this during conversations: “We need help. We need all the help we can get from Europe. The government sent in riot police to enable and secure the construction of closed migration camps. Nonetheless, violence spiralled out of control when citizens, among them neo-fascists, hooligans, and people awaiting trial for attacking refugees, attacked an army camp that was harbouring police officers. They are targeting people from NGOs, journalists, leftists, teachers at local schools, and in general, anyone who is not from the island. The police are unable to contain the situation. It is the first time in my life that I am afraid to do my job”.

Currently, there is nothing in sight that could provide hope for a de-escalation of the situation. Statements such as Von der Leyen’s description of Greece as Europe’s apsida (shield) will certainly not be enough.

By Christos Stasinopoulos (Forum’s Regional Editor in Athens)