Turkey enters a new phase in its migration policies with COVID-19

Turkey enters a new phase in its migration policies with COVID-19

Those working on migration issues have been pondering how the 2016 Turkey-EU migration deal will evolve in the post-COVID-19 era.

A webinar and brainstorming session organized by the Economic Development Foundation (İKV) on May 8 provided a useful signpost as to where we stand today and what to look for in the future.

First of all, the deal deserves credit for achieving two things with immediate effect, according to Erkut Emcioğlu: It dramatically decreased the number of crossings over the Aegean Sea and the number of deaths during the passages. Some 150,000 people crossed the Aegean in the first three months of 2016. From then until March, the number of crossings was 144,000.

Some 366 people died while crossing between Jan. 1 and March 20, 2016. Approximately the same number of people died over the course of the past 3.5 years. Of course, even one is too many, but these numbers still speak for themselves.

Turkey delivered on its promise to stop the crossings while the European Union, despite views to the contrary from Turkish decision-makers, delivered on its financial support, if you ask me. After all, more than half of what the bloc promised (3 billion euros plus another 3 billion euros until 2023) has been transferred to Turkey, representing the biggest and speediest (by EU standards) cash transfer in the union’s history.

The rest of the deal, including the voluntary relocation of Syrian refugees from EU countries or the revival of Turkey’s EU accession process, did not work. In the short term, the dead part of the deal will remain dead, as the pandemic has reinforced the extreme unwillingness in the majority of EU countries to do anything on refugee issues.

So in the short to mid-term, the focus for Turkey will be on securing the transfer of the rest of the financial package as well as additional financial assistance. The latter might prove difficult since the pandemic is expected to seriously hit Europe’s economies. For transparency reasons, the bloc insists on funding international organizations, which subsequently collaborate with national and local partners. But with these multiple layers, funds are being lost in transactional costs, according to Deniz Sert. “They could have a more positive impact if local actors such as municipalities are directly funded, for example,” she said.

Aware that it will have difficulty in convincing member countries to finance Turkey, the commission thinks it might be easier to get everyone on board if it diverted the funds to protecting the borders. For the 2021-2027 EU budget, the commission proposed to almost triple funding for migration and border management. No doubt, Turkey’s threats that it will open its borders with Greece must have played a role during budget planning.

At any rate, much of the burden of Syria’s nearly 3.6 million external refugees is going to fall upon the shoulders of Turkey. And in that sense, participants shared important assessments as to the current situation, starting from the lessons to be learned from Turkey’s decision to open the border on Feb. 28.

Turkey opened the border with Greece almost simultaneously with the news that 33 soldiers were killed under regime fire in the northwestern province of Idlib. The focus of the media immediately turned to Edirne, where thousands of migrants started to go. But most of them were not Syrians, and the majority failed to cross to Greece as Greek security forces took draconian measures to prevent any crossings. By mid-March, with the focus shifting to the pandemic, the migrants returned and things went back to normal in Edirne.

Two conclusions can be driven from the Edirne episode, according to the webinar’s participants: 1) A large part of Syrians want to stay in Turkey; 2) Turkey might no longer be able to use the threat of opening its borders as doing so has not brought the desired outcome.

The first of these conclusions is validated by field studies, which show a visible change between 2017 and 2019, as more Syrians say they feel happy and safe in Turkey. Interestingly, this is the case despite the drop in acceptance levels in society. “Syrians feel safer because they are not aware of the reaction in the society; they live in their own world,” said Murat Erdoğan. Syrians are also moving toward a “diasporic” structure, he said.

Despite the rhetoric at the political level – summarized by Erdoğan as the government arguing that “the Syrian refugee issue” will be solved once Syrian President Bashar al-Assad departs and the opposition arguing it will be solved once Turkey mends fences with him – experts seem to agree that efforts will speed up for integration in the post-COVID-19 period.

While the prevailing rhetoric is still on the “return” of refugees, the work of NGOs, academia and local administrations toward integration are encouraged by the central government, according to Ayhan Kaya.

And with the majority of Syrian refugees set to remain in Turkey, irregular migrants from Afghanistan or African countries should become the main focus of talks between Ankara and the EU, according to Erdoğan.