After months of negotiations, the 28 European Union leaders and the Turkish government last weekend reached an agreement to slow the refugee influx from Turkey. In exchange for taking back Syrian refugees who crossed to Europe illegally, the EU will accept refugees from Turkey, along with 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) and a renewed prospect for Turkey to join the EU.
The so-called 1:1 plan — for each illegal migrant that Turkey takes back from Greece, the EU will take one refugee from Turkey — went into effect at midnight on Sunday. As of four days into the agreement, there were no signs that the refugee influx is letting up.
And earlier this week, the deal suffered a setback when one of the important implementation partners, the UN refugee agency UNHCR pulled out. “UNHCR is not a party to the EU-Turkey deal, nor will we be involved in returns or detention,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told press in Geneva.
If anyone held out hope that the EU-Turkey deal would end the refugee crisis, they’re mistaken.
1. The operational realities are too difficult.
Critics have pointed out that the plan would violate international law that guarantees refugees an individual review of their asylum application. Three of the most involvedhumanitarian agencies, UNCHR, Doctors Without Borders and the Norwegian Refugee Council, have now pulled out.
“Greece does not have sufficient capacity on the islands for assessing asylum claims, nor the proper conditions to accommodate people decently and safely pending an examination of their cases,” Fleming said. An estimated 50,000 migrants, including more than 13,000 in the tiny border village of Idomeni, are stranded in Greece since Macedonia and other countries along the Balkan route sealed their borders. The EU-Turkey agreement does not address their fate.
Ironically, as part of the deal Turkish citizens will be able to travel to Europe without visas as early as June, which would include Syrian refugees who will be eligible for Turkish citizenship as they now have lived in Turkey for five years.
2. Migrants and refugees will use new routes to reach Europe.
The EU-Turkey deal is supposed to effectively close the Eastern Mediterranean route through which over 1 million migrants and refugees reached the European since the beginning of 2015. Yet with winter ending, the Central Mediterranean migrant route between North Africa and Sicily has become busier, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), hinting at a surge in the months to come.
Including sea routes to Spain and the Greek Islands, the IOM estimates that some 156,000 migrants and refugees have landed in Europe from Africa and the Middle East in the first months of 2016 compared to fewer than 20,000 during the same period last year. Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanistani might also try to reach the European Union via Albania and Bulgaria, circumventing Greece.
3. The previous EU solution to tackle the influx of refugees has to date been a failure.
If past performance is a predictor of future success, chances that the EU-Turkey deal will be effective are slim, too. European Union leaders already agreed in May last year to relocate 40,000 refugees from Greece and Italy within the EU; in September the bloc upped this number to 160,000. As of March 22, a mere 953 Syrian, Eritrean and Iraqi refugees had been relocated under this “solidarity scheme.” Central European EU members such as Hungary and Poland have refused to accept asylum seekers, and others, such as the Baltic States and United Kingdom, have only reluctantly agreed to participate.
4. The European refugee crisis is part of a global refugee crisis that won’t go away.
The number of displaced people worldwide in 2015 — 60 million — was the highest ever. Even if Syrian peace talks are successful and ISIS is defeated, many Syrians are likely not to return home. So far Turkey (1.7 million Syrian refugees), Lebanon (1.1 million) and Jordan (1 million) have taken on a proportionally much higher burden than the European Union.
Meanwhile, millions of refugees and internally displaced — those displaced persons who have not crossed an international border — continue to be caught in protracted conflicts in place such as Afghanistan, Kenya, Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
And new refugee emergencies due to conflict and bad governance emerge each year: Eritrea (almost 50,000 fleeing national conscription monthly); Mozambique (internal strife has forced 11,500 over the border to Malawi in past six months); Yemen (173,000 fled civil war and military intervention by Saudi Arabia); Rwanda (over 250,000 have left in the aftermath of last year’s violent elections and their aftermath); and Central America (tens of thousands on the run from gang violence in 2015 alone).
Most refugees find safe harbor in neighboring countries in their regions, yet more affluent nations are affected, too, as many refugees will try to make their way to Europe, North America, South Africa and Australia.
5. Global migration is here to stay and needs to be managed. And the global refugee crisis, in turn, cannot be seen in isolation. Global migration is at an all-time high. There are an estimated 232 million international migrants, according to the latest edition of the IOM’s authoritative World Migration Report.
People move as economies and trade, as well as social networks, become more and more interconnected. Europe will continue to be an attractive continent for young and relatively well-off individuals and families from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, in addition to those who have fled war and dictatorships and are living in poverty in refugee settlements.
The EU-Turkey agreement is certainly a step in the direction of developing an EU policy of managing migration and refugee flows, but still has too much of a not-in-my-backyard ring to it.