Turkey’s refugee plan offers breakthrough

Turkey’s refugee plan offers breakthrough

Months-long negotiations between Turkey and the European Union over how to deal with the growing refugee crisis apparently entered a new phase on March 7 at a summit in Brussels, where the Turkish government surprised EU leaders with a new and ambitious package of proposals. 

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu first mentioned these proposals to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the EU term president, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in a six-hour-long meeting late on March 6 before announcing them at the summit. He then informed Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of this package, asking Athens to support it. 

Ankara’s proposals consist of its willingness to readmit all irregular migrants crossing to the Greek islands from Turkey, to station immigration and liaison officers to help facilitate the processing of readmission cases, and to cooperate with the EU on the resettlement of Syrians. Resettlements will be based on the formula that for every Syrian readmitted to Turkey from Greece, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to an EU member state.

In return, the EU will pay an additional 3 billion euros to Turkey by the end of 2018, will realize the lifting of visa requirements for Turkish citizens in the Schengen zone (by the end of June at the latest, instead of October), will work to open new chapters, and will cooperate with Turkey to create safe areas inside Syria for the future settlement of new refugees. 

One of the most important differences between the action plan crafted on Nov. 29, 2015 and the plan on March 7 is that while the former aimed to stem the flow of refugees from Turkey to EU countries, the latter focuses on stopping the flow of irregular migrants. This should be regarded as a very drastic and bold change in Turkey’s position, which was appreciated by a number of EU leaders during the summit. 

The second difference is that Turkey will not only readmit economic migrants - mainly coming from Asia and North Africa - but also Syrians who flee war and violence and therefore need international protection. 

This change in position was first signaled during Merkel’s visit to Ankara in February, when the two governments called on NATO to launch a military operation in the Aegean to monitor and help the Turkish and Greek coast guards intercept human smuggling networks. Davutoğlu’s promises that Turkey would accept all apprehended migrants in the Aegean Sea amounted to footsteps heralding the Turkish government’s new undertaking.  

However, there are serious questions before the full and efficient implementation of the latest plan. The first is the legality of the agreement to send people back to Turkey without guarantees for their protection, as cited by international and European law. The U.N. and international organizations immediately voiced their concerns about the fact that the agreement does not underline the protection of asylum-seekers in their return to Turkey. 

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has insisted that sending refugees back to Turkey would be legal and in line with international conventions, as Greece had designated Turkey as “a safe third country,” meaning it can refuse to claim refugee status for those migrants coming from its Aegean neighbor. 

Another problem is the fact that it will not be easy to convince Greek Cyprus to lift its veto on the five negotiation chapters ithat Turkey demands to be opened from the EU. A third problem is the serious disagreement between EU countries on refugee quotas, with a number of countries - especially Central and Eastern European countries - voicing opposition to the resettlement of Syrians. A fourth problem is about the additional 3 billion euros, as many EU countries will surely be unwilling to put their hands into their pockets. 

As observed in the past, overcoming these difficulties will require the strong commitment of Germany’s Merkel. As the co-architect of this process with Davutoğlu, Merkel still believes there is no better alternative in responding to this question. Although there could be some minor changes at the upcoming summit on March 17 and 18 to Turkey’s proposals, the formula of “one for one” will make up the core of the plan.    

If agreed to and implemented in an efficient way, this plan would put an end to the growing tragedy of refugees by imposing a legal order on those who want to be settled in EU countries, therefore saving the lives of thousands of asylum-seekers and solving a tragic humanitarian problem. Equally important, the successful realization of this plan would further increase the level of cooperation between Turkey and EU states.