Could the refugee crisis boost EU-Turkey relations?

Could the refugee crisis boost EU-Turkey relations?

Angelo Santagostino
Today the theme of migration is dominating the agenda of relations between the European Union and Turkey. In the conclusions of the European Council for Oct. 15-16 we read the following: “The migration and refugee crisis is a common obligation which requires a comprehensive strategy and a determined effort over time in a spirit of solidarity and responsibility … The European Council welcomes the joint Action Plan with Turkey as part of a comprehensive cooperation agenda based on shared responsibility, mutual commitments and delivery.” 

On Oct. 18, German Chancellor Angela Merkel showed an unprecedented positive stance on Turkey’s journey to EU membership. Was this sudden inspiration on her road to Ankara? No, it was based on internal political calculations. But that’s how politics works: Political convenience is stronger than inspiration. Again, a crisis boosted Europe. History repeats itself continuously! 

But really how big is the current flow of refugees? According to an official source, Europe will officially host 250,000 migrants as a whole.

Data provided by Frontex, the European agency in charge of external borders, gives an interesting insight into the direction and dimensions of migrant flows in recent years. First of all, Frontex points out that “One of the biggest entry routes for migrants into the EU is via international airports: Most of those who currently reside in the EU illegally originally entered in possession of valid travel documents and a visa whose validity period they have since overstayed.” 

At present there are eight main migratory routes. The Eastern Mediterranean route is by far the biggest. Between January and September 2015 the total number of illegal border crossings reached the level of 360,000 people, 249,000 of whom were from Syria. The remainder is made up of 67,000 from Afghanistan and 19,000 from Iraq. The Balkans route provides the second biggest flow of 205,000 people from January to September 2015, composed of 88,000 Syrians, 53,000 Afghans, and 23,000 Kosovans. The third biggest flow is through the Central Mediterranean route, with around 130,000 from January to September 2015. Eritrea and Nigeria are the two biggest suppliers, with 33,000 and 16,000 migrants respectively crossing the sea in search of a more promising and peaceful life. Needless to say, these figures do not take into consideration the many - far too many - who have lost their life trying to turn the European dream into reality. According to UNHCR, 3,500 migrants lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean in 2014, while 3,100 have died up to September this year. The total number of dead migrants since 2010 is above 9,000. 

Furthermore, another 10,000 have reached Europe in 2015 so far through three minor routes: The eastern borders, the western Mediterranean (to Spain), and west Africa (to the Canary Islands). Overall there is a total of 705,000 in 2015 so far, with around 340,000 from Syria. Considering the huge increase in the flow we have witnessed since August, we are likely to see a total of one million refugees for the whole of 2015 by the end of the year. What’s more, nothing indicates that this flow will slacken in 2016. Most likely it will increase, at least from Syria, as a result of an escalation of the conflict due to the recent Russian intervention.  

Let’s return to the Eastern Mediterranean, which is the route used by migrants crossing through Turkey to the EU via Greece, southern Bulgaria, or Cyprus. In 2008 this route, with Turkey as the main nexus point, became the second busiest migration hot spot, maintaining this position until 2014. In the past seven years, slightly fewer than 320,000 people have used this route. These figures imply that what happened in the first nine months of this year topped the total flow of the previous seven years. Furthermore, according to Frontex, “2013 was characterized by an increased amount of migrants arriving to the Greek islands from Turkey as well as a high number of Syrian refugees arriving in Bulgaria from Turkey.”

In the period 2008-2014, through various routes, about 880,000 migrants have reached Europe. Based on the data seen so far, by the end of this year this figure will be almost doubled, totaling just below 2 million people. 

The challenge is big. The resources are scarce. But it will not be the first time that the fear of consequences of an event puts the forces needed to solve it in motion, creating more advanced forms of cooperation among partners who share common values and views.

* Angelo Santagostino, Jean Monnet ad Personam Chair, Yıldırım Beyazıt University, Ankara.