The EU-Turkey agreement oversimplifies the refugee crisis

The plan ignores international humanitarian laws guaranteeing the right to apply for asylum


After many hours of negotiation at the fourth major EU migration summit since September, a breakthrough was announced late last night in Brussels.

It is not a formal agreement and could yet fall through. But the broad framework has been announced by European Council President, Donald Tusk, and there will be further discussion at a minister’s summit on 17 March.

In exchange for an aid payment and progress towards visa-free travel for Turkish nationals, migrants arriving Greece will be returned to Turkey. For each migrant who is returned, the EU will accept a Syrian living in a refugee camp in Turkey – on a one-for-one basis.

The stakes were high, as the migration crisis has threatened the existence of the EU in its current form. It has also caused diplomatic tensions between eastern European countries and the west, and between northern and southern Europe, and has the potential to influence voters in the UK’s EU referendum in June.  

On first impressions the outline of the plan seems like a simple solution to a mounting humanitarian crisis. But it implementing it will not be as simple as it seems. The actions of people smugglers and migration flows may simply shift to another country if it becomes too difficult to enter Greece.  

Once migrants arrive on Greek shores – often under the cover of darkness – the police will have to apprehend, hold and return desperate people who probably won’t want to go back. This is logistically difficult and expensive and threatens human rights abuse. We can expect ugly scenes if this happens.

Not everyone arriving in Greece is Syrian. The migrants include Eritreans, Sudanese, Somalis, Iraqis and Afghans. Many of them have legitimate claims to political asylum – as well as no means of survival in Turkey. The plan, if implemented, tears up the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the international humanitarian law that guarantees the right to apply for asylum.

The agreement also does nothing for those migrants and refugees who are living in Italy and Greece, often sleeping rough. Previous EU migration summits resulted in a small scale resettlement plan, moving refugees from Italy and Greece to countries in northern Europe, although many EU states have opted out of this. This resettlement programme was meant to move 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece to other countries. To date just 660 refugees have been moved.

There are no easy answers to the migration crisis, but there are some actions that would lessen the movement of people. Obviously dealing with the root causes of forced migration is essential. Much more could be done to promote peace and human rights in Eritrea, for example.

Second, enabling migrants to work in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan would remove much of their need for onward migration. Migrants are often leaving Turkey simply because they cannot support themselves and their families. EU aid should focus on creating employment for migrants in the countries that border Syria and Iraq.

Third, the proposed plan does nothing to assist Afghans, Eritreans and Iraqis who make up many of those fleeing to Greece. They will be returned to a state of limbo in Turkey, with no opportunity to support themselves or move to the EU through legal means.

Fourth, we need to speed up the resettlement plan agreed in Valletta.  The EU’s newer member states in eastern Europe, who have themselves benefited from freedom of movement that the EU has brought them, need to take in refugees. The UK also needs to be part of the EU resettlement plan – taking in just over 1,000 refugees is not sufficient.

We also need to rethink the ideas that underpin refugee resettlement. Alexander Betts, a professor of forced migration at Oxford has suggested that we should consider our domestic labour market needs when agreeing to admit resettled refugees. If refugees are admitted to work – in Canada, the USA, the UK and Germany – they become self-sufficient and contribute to the society that has offered them asylum.

It remains to be seen whether this current plan will materialise into a formal agreement. But at first sight, it is not the easy answer it appears. Solutions to the crisis need to embrace the need for migrants to support themselves and their families. This is not a component of the current plan.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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