At the gates of Europe
Last I checked, on Dec. 8, it had dwindled down to 0. Just 14 months ago, on Oct. 20, 2015, it was more than 10,000, mind you. Prefer long-term averages? The daily average was around 5,000 for November 2015 and 66 for November 2016.
These are the numbers of irregular migrants setting foot on the shores of Greek islands. You can check the data-rich UNHCR website for yourself; they have done a good job of keeping tabs on the refugee flow from Turkey to Greece.
To those living in the troubled parts of our region, such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, the Aegean Sea was the cheapest and least dangerous route to the safety of Europe. Then why did the route dry up in 2016?
Well, the much-criticized EU-Turkey migrant deal has effectively stopped the refugee flow to Europe over the Aegean. Nothing else worked. The Austrians made a frantic attempt to close the Balkan corridor, to no avail.
It was Turkey that secured the borders of the EU. If the refugees had been allowed in, Europe would have had to do away with the Schengen Zone and erect barriers again. Without the free movement of peoples, a fundamental right the EU grants its citizens would have been revoked, and the entire European project put in danger. So “the Turk,” that was once the harbinger of Europe’s doom, now saved it from internal destruction.
The objective here was to transform Turkey from a country of transit to the destination itself. And there, I see unfinished business. The refugees want safety, not just from bombs, but from hunger, cold and dishonor.
They want to be in a system where their kids go to school, and where they can plan for the future. And there are millions of them. They’ve seen war, and one way or another, they will get what they want. Turkey can provide them some safety, but the promise so far has been that the EU, the wealthiest and most developed part of the world, will help to take care of the refugees.
To me, it is not the Turkish Coast Guard that killed the trafficking market, it is the idea of the EU-Turkey deal that curbed refugees’ hope of successful passage, effectively saving lives. So what happens when the refugees realize that the EU-Turkey cooperation has fallen apart? The human trafficking market bridging the Aegean will re-emerge. We will once again have bodies washing up on our shores.
So why has the EU-Turkey migration deal not been completed despite it being an enormous success in limiting the refugee flow so far? Part of it is that the readmission mechanism of the deal has not yet been made effective. When a refugee reaches a Greek island illegally, Turkey has promised to readmit, i.e., take that person back. That was the deal. The promise of readmission renders the journey across the Aegean route to Europe a futile effort, since even successful arrival on EU shores meant being transferred back to Turkey. The deal made it impossible to reach much sought-after destinations like Germany or Sweden, so people stopped paying human traffickers.
Yet readmission is not working. There are more than 16,000 refugees still stuck on the Aegean islands, more than double their capacity. Yet, the number of refugees readmitted to Turkey is still less than a few hundred, and more than half are not Syrians. If those people are let into the EU, the human traffickers will eventually be back in business, and the EU-Turkey migrant deal will fail.
But why is readmission not working? First, Greek bureaucracy has proven itself less than competent. There aren’t enough personnel on the islands to process the asylum applications. Currently, only about 1,000 asylum applications are processed on the islands. Second, Turkey has not ratified the agreement completely and effectively stopped readmitting refugees. Turkey also recalled its personnel posted on Greek islands to process the migrants. Third, Greek and other EU governments are being pressured by human rights groups that Turkey is not a safe third country to send refugees back. Why? There are, most significantly, no refugee registration stations in Turkey to check whether it is safe to return that person to the originating country and if not so, provide documents for the person to stay in Turkey legally. The post-readmission process is not transparent and arbitrary at times. Questions abound on the legal status of non-Syrians that are re-admitted to Turkey and whether they are sent back to their countries of origins without proper due process. That is eminently doable, and it would get the wheels turning once again for the EU-Turkey deal and fully transform Turkey from a transit to a destination country.
Yet I see that the attention span of Turks is getting ever shorter and Turkey is just not playing. Turkey is getting bored for sure.
Why has Turkey not done this? For the Turkish electorate, visa-free travel was the prize. Now with Ukrainians and Georgians getting visa-free travel as the Turks are left out, Ankara will feel the sting. After all, this shows that it isn’t the sheer amount of population that concerns the EU in terms of granting visa-free travel to Turks. Ukraine plus Georgia adds up to 50 million poor Easterners under Russia’s boot. This is just another, and a rather rude, manifestation of the EU’s absence of a Turkey strategy. Turcophobia is real, and like all phobias, it is irrational at its root.
As I’ve said before, the EU’s carrot and stick policy won’t work on Turkey any more. Europe desperately needs to summon up whatever brains and political will it has and come up with a Turkey strategy. The already short attention span of Turks gets even shorter in times of crisis.