Keeping the Aegean agreement afloat

Keeping the Aegean agreement afloat

The Aegean agreement, also known as the EU-Turkey agreement on refugees, had a dramatic and immediate impact on refugee movements in the Eastern Mediterranean. Nine months old, the agreement may be about to collapse because of inadequate implementation and lack of the right focus, with highly detrimental consequences for Greece, the Balkans, the European Union, and the United Nations Refugee Convention.
What happens if the agreement fails? Here is a realistic scenario. The Greek authorities, under pressure and without an answer for islanders who fear that Lesbos and Chios are turning into a European Nauru, move ever-larger numbers of people from the Aegean islands to the mainland. This leads to steadily rising numbers of people crossing the Aegean, as it becomes clear that very few people are going to be returned to Turkey. Smugglers, fully aware that their business model depends on large numbers crossing daily, further lower the price to entice more people to get on boats. Once more people are moved to the Greek mainland, the humanitarian situation for refugees there deteriorates further.

The Turkish authorities, frustrated by what they see as an EU failure, blame the EU for increasing the pressure on its coast guard. European institutions and other governments in turn blame Greece. Calls by populist leaders in the rest of the EU to build a stronger wall north of Greece redouble. Already now, the number one topic of conversation among migrants stranded on the Greek mainland is the cost of getting smuggled across the Balkan route, either via Macedonia or Bulgaria. It is hard to imagine Greece making a major effort to stop people from leaving the country if its government and people feel abandoned by the EU.

 The weak Macedonian reception and asylum system collapse within weeks as more people cross the border.

 As winter sets in, the Western Balkans turn into a battleground for migrants, smugglers, border guards, soldiers and vigilante groups, destabilizing an already fragile region. And ever-larger numbers begin to arrive again in Central Europe. Such a scenario would be a devastating blow to those leaders in Europe who argued that it is possible to have a humane and effective EU policy on border management while respecting the refugee convention. 

For the UNHCR, this would be a moment of existential crisis. 2017 could become the year in which the promises of the 1951 Refugee Convention drown in the waters of the Mediterranean. Given how much is at stake in the Aegean today, for the EU, Greece and Turkey, for the refugee convention and the prospects for a humane policy on borders, for refugees and EU citizens, every effort should be made to avoid such a turn of events.

The EU should immediately appoint a (senior) special representative for the implementation of the EU-Turkey Agreement, with the experience and authority to address urgent implementation issues on the ground. Beyond this, the following two steps are crucial. 

To rescue the agreement, the European Commission and Turkey also have to be serious about addressing concerns raised by the Greek asylum service and the UNHCR with regards to Turkey being a safe third country for those who should be returned from Greece. EU leaders in turn should confirm that this becomes the key condition for visa liberalization before the end of the year.  

At the same time, the EU and Greece need to create conditions that would permit the sending of a European asylum mission of case workers, interpreters, and support staff to Greece. No national asylum system can do this on its own. It would be unfair to blame Greece for being unable to rapidly deal with asylum requests of the tens of thousands of people it currently hosts. It would be unreasonable for Greece not to ask for more help than has been provided so far. 

Taking these steps is essential for a successful implementation of the agreement. If Turkey sees it as being in its national interest to implement it, it will act now. If not, it will allow the Aegean Agreement to fail. It is ultimately a matter of political will on the part of the EU and Turkey to be able to deal with the few thousand asylum seekers now on the Aegean islands in line with international norms and EU directives, and to implement the Aegean agreement. A collapse of the agreement would be a terrible blow for already tense EU-Turkey relations. There would be no silver lining. It is time to recognize this, and act.

* Gerald Knaus is the Founding Chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI). This is an abridged version of the original article in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Fall 2016 issue.