[Opinion] The EU-Turkey migration deal is dead on arrival at this summit
On Thursday (23 March) and Friday, the leaders of EU member states will get together in Brussels to discuss the future of EU migration policy. We already know what they will agree on: more border control (e.g. more guards, security infrastructure, surveillance and equipment at the borders), and more agreements with third states.
Last week also marked the seventh anniversary of the EU-Turkey Statement, first agreed in 2016. The agreement is still proclaimed by some to be the model for future migration deals. They are either ill-informed, in denial or worse, considering that the EU-Turkey Statement has been dead in the water since at least 2020.
The EU-Turkey Statement was always built on flimsy premises. At the heart of the agreement is the idea that Turkey will keep asylum seekers from reaching the EU or, if they do, the EU can send asylum seekers arriving irregularly back to Turkey.
For the deal to stand, the EU must assume that Turkey is a safe country for asylum seekers. However, there is ample evidence that Turkey, like other states that the EU wants to make agreements with, cannot be considered safe.
A state can only be deemed legally safe if it grants the person access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure, and if it treats the person in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention.
In its 2022 report on Turkey, the European Commission itself casts serious doubt on whether the country can be considered safe. Turkey does not even consider itself fully bound by the 1951 Refugee Convention, as it still upholds territorial limitations.
Moreover, Turkey has not ratified different core human rights treaties; on the contrary, it recently pulled back from the Istanbul Protocol. Finally, the country has been widely criticised for a growing disregard for human rights standards in the wake of the 2016 attempted coup, one that also affects migrant communities.
Crucially, between 2016 and 2020, only about 2,000 people were returned from the five Greek eastern Aegean islands under the EU-Turkey Statement.
Since early 2020, readmissions have been suspended completely, which means that no asylum seekers have been returned through legitimate channels. None. Those who have been sent back to Turkey were illegally pushed back, as widely reported and recognised by courts, international and national organisations, non-governmental organisations and international and national journalists.
The Turkish unwillingness seems to stem from (geo)political concerns that are unrelated to refugee protection. It not only makes clear that Turkey is no safe country, but also that the EU’s externalisation strategy is fundamentally flawed. The EU relies on the cooperation of countries that simply cannot be relied on.
Member states and European institutions are aware and have publicly recognised that the EU-Turkey Statement has been moot since 2020.
Nevertheless, no one is willing to change course. The effects of this malfunction, which we see every day on Lesvos, are devastating.
Because Greece does not publicly acknowledge that the deal is dead and buried, it refuses to examine the asylum applications of many asylum seekers that should, in principle, be returned to Turkey under the EU-Turkey Statement.
In most cases, the consequence is that asylum seekers end up in a legal limbo. Although it is obvious that Turkey will not admit these asylum seekers, their applications are still considered inadmissible. This leaves them stuck in detention-like camps or in a homeless situation, without any prospects and often devoid of access to services.
If the EU wants to design sustainable migration and asylum strategies and uphold human rights standards, it cannot count on third states as managers ad interim. A complete failure of the EU-Turkey Statement, like the failure of similar agreements, shows that other strategies need to be explored.
The past year has proven that there are alternatives: since the war in Ukraine started, approximately 8.1 million forcibly-displaced persons have been registered in the EU for temporary protection. This shows that the absence of a sustainable solution for asylum seekers is not due to a lack of capacity, but because the EU lacks political will, often driven by xenophobia and nationalist political interests.
Why can the effort for Ukrainians not be our guideline for other asylum seekers? The EU has proven that it is both able to establish safe passage and share responsibilities within the Union. In addition, it should invest in foreign development, without forcing states to act as our border guards before they get access to funds. Plenty to talk about, it seems, tonight in Brussels.