Will the Turkey-EU migrant scheme work?
The first group of 202 immigrants, who had crossed illegally to the Greek islands after March 20, were sent back to Turkey on April 4, as scheduled in the agreement reached on March 18 between Ankara and the European Union.
Most of the immigrants sent back to Turkey were from Pakistan. Simultaneously, 32 immigrants, all from Syria, were sent from Turkey to Germany, where they will be settled.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were on the phone during the swap to coordinate the move. According to the plan, for each Syrian migrant the EU takes, Turkey will readmit one migrant who illegally left its shores for Greece in the hope of a safe and perhaps more prosperous life in Europe. The plan was originally put forward by Davutoğlu during a Turkey-EU meeting on March 7 as a follow-up to a Merkel initiative, which she had kicked off during a visit to Istanbul back on Oct. 18, 2015.
During that visit last year she talked with Davutoğlu and Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan about a roadmap to stop illegal immigration into EU countries, with counter demands by Turkey to reactivate its frozen relationship with the union. Ankara wanted burden-sharing for the hosting of immigrants, visa-free travel for its citizens within Schengen states and the opening of new membership negotiation chapters, especially those under the veto of the Greek Cypriot government.
It is surprising that - in a world full of uncertainties - the plan has gone into effect within six months. The plan is certainly not flawless. United Nations agencies and institutions like Amnesty International have objected to the way the migrants have been made into a diplomatic bargaining chip.
Meanwhile, on the Turkish side it was not possible to lift the Greek Cypriot veto because of ongoing peace talks on the island with the Turkish Cypriots. On the EU side, there are objections from individual governments, with some voicing opposition to accepting any migrants and others against visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. After all, a fatal wave of terrorist acts and an ongoing struggle against terror is continuing in the country. Despite those obstacles, the scheme began to roll out yesterday, as scheduled.
It is at least a start - a timely start. But will it continue to work?
The Turkish government’s forecasts about human smugglers abandoning the Aegean route between Turkey and Greece are holding so far. Cases of illegal migrant trafficking have dropped sharply since the agreement was put into effect on March 20. But that is still no guarantee for the future. Germany as the locomotive force and other EU countries would like to test the case with incremental steps. Turkey would like to see whether the EU will keep its promises.
The next step is visa-free travel. EU officials have made it clear that if the Turkish government fulfills certain criteria by the end of April (only half have been done so far) visa-free travel could be possible by the end of June. Ankara has only a few weeks’ time to complete the rest.