Too early to say if EU-Turkey refugee deal is working

Too early to say if EU-Turkey refugee deal is working

Initial reports indicate a decline in the number of refugees trying to cross to Greece from Turkey since Ankara and the EU concluded their controversial agreement on refugees. The agreement foresees the return to Turkey, as of April 1, of all those who crossed illegally to Greece after March 20. Turkey will in return send a similar number of “legal refugees” to Europe.

On paper all looks fine - although the legality of the deal is still being questioned - and the initial signs show that the arrangement may be working. There are also signs that the Turkish coast guard and navy are monitoring the seas between Turkey and Greece more closely.

Greek officials are nevertheless cautious. They suggest that the decline in numbers may be seasonal, and are bracing for spring when a new deluge may be uncontrollable, even if a large number of crossings are prevented.

All this remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen how the process of returning illegal entrants into Greece after March 20 will proceed. In response to those questioning the legality of the refugee deal with Turkey, EU officials say that even those who have entered illegally after March 20 will be vetted to determine whether their claim for asylum is bona fide. 

They say the reduced number of illegal crossings will make this process easier. But if a new flood of uncontrolled refugees begins, the matter will become more difficult to manage, especially if there are images of people being forcefully returned on mass.

There could be ugly scenes up ahead. Ankara does not appear overly concerned about this. The feeling among officials is that it is up to the EU side to worry about all of that. Officials have indicated that what concerns them is that Turkey is seen to be doing the best to prevent illegal crossings. 

They also are looking to see if the EU keeps its promises. Turkish EU Minister Volkan Bozkır, for example, is particularly interested in the promise to lift visa requirements on Turks travelling the Europe by the end of June. 

In an interview on CNN Türk, he said Ankara would fulfill the 72 criteria demanded by the EU for this by the end of April. The government can do this because it has enough seats in parliament to pass the necessary legislation on its own without the need for support from opposition parties.

This issue has become a matter of political prestige for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and a litmus test on whether the refugee deal with the EU is really to Turkey’s advantage. Bozkır knows this too and had no qualms in providing a direct answer to those questioning what happens if the EU does not keep its visa promise. 

“Then we have the right to terminate the readmission agreement. We will do it too … We have the right to terminate it in six months,” Bozkır said.

Bozkır has to say this of course. His government cannot give the impression that it has somehow been tricked by an EU that never intended keep its promise. It will also cost the AKP politically if the refugee deal is not terminated should the EU backpedal on all its promises.

Notwithstanding that, most analysts and retired Turkish ambassadors believe it will be hard for the EU to honor its side of the deal, because there is still serious opposition in some member states to granting Turkish citizens visa free access to Europe. Some members even feel that Turkey is blackmailing them in this issue using the refugees.

Of course, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş’s suggestion that if visa requirements are lifted then Kurds under pressure in Turkey will throng to Europe (which could be the case) does not help.

It remains to be seen, therefore, if these hurdles can be overcome. If not, the refugee deal could run into major difficulties before it even has the opportunity to take off properly - even if initial signs appear to suggest that it may be working.