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Alexander Betts writes in El País

Today in El País, Professor Alexander Betts has written an opinion piece on this week's EU-Turkey plan to ‘manage’ the current refugee crisis in Europe. This plan proposes that all refugees and migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey will be returned, and for each Syrian sent back, a Syrian in Turkey will be resettled in the EU.

Below is the English translation of the El País article, which you can find, in Spanish, here: Esta dependencia de Turquía es arriesgada


The EU-Turkey summit in Brussels signals a shift in Europe’s migration strategy. With the failure of the EU to agree an internal deal, it is now focusing on an external deal. Once a deal is concluded, Turkey will probably accept the readmission of all Syrians and others arriving in Greece and introduce greater mobility controls. In exchange, the EU will give Turkey billions of Euros, visa concessions, and seek to accelerate EU accession talks. Turkey is demanding that for every person returned, at least one Syrian refugee should be resettled to Europe.  

This 'Turkish containment strategy' has become Europe's Plan A, and it has no Plan B. With growing xenophobia, European governments’ primary goal has become to close the Balkan route. This closure, though, has left already beleaguered Greece isolated and the Greek islands subjected to tragedy and chaos. Today’s summit envisages two mechanisms to support Greece: return to Turkey and the establishment of a centralised EU-wide resettlement scheme for those recognised as refugees in Turkey. But the latter of these relies upon commitments from the EU that do not yet exist, and the EU now seems utterly dependent upon Turkish cooperation.

There are huge risks to the deal’s heavy reliance on Turkey.

First, the Turkish deal risks being inconsistent with our obligations under international refugee law and European law. Jean-Claude Juncker’s claim that Turkey is a ‘Safe Third Country’ to which responsibility for refugees can be transferred is tenuous. EU member states – unlike Turkey – are full signatories to the relevant international refuge conventions. While they do not have an obligation to grant asylum to everyone who comes, they have an obligation to allow refugees to seek asylum, and an absolute responsibility to ensure those people are treated in accordance with international standards. It remains ambiguous which people the EU will return to Turkey and how they will be treated, including those who are not Syrians and who potentially risk detention and deportation.

Second, on a practical level, the Turkish commitment is only possible because of particular dynamics within Turkish politics. The distribution of Erdogan's support base, the shared religion of most Turks and Syrians, the Alawite population in the South-East, the desire of Erdogan to please the international community make it possible to Turkey to host so many Syrians. But this could change. Until now, the Turkish government is quick to blame the Kurds for all terrorist attacks in mainland Turkey. But what if a bomb were to go off in Istanbul? As soon as that perception changes, will the Turkish electorate continue to welcome Syrians?

Third, there are human rights challenges. Turkey has this week closed a major opposition newspaper, Zeman. Erdogan has an appalling human rights record, little respect for democracy, and has attacked his own population. Europe has already had negative experiences of working with authoritarian regimes such as Gadaffi’s Libya on migration issues. Getting into bed with Erdogan and offering such large carrots and few conditions, risks further undermining the core liberal values of the European Union.

Using NATO naval deployment to dismantle smuggling networks risks denying access to vulnerable populations and simply diverting smuggling routes. Even by its own standards – of seeking to ‘break the link between smuggling and asylum’, the deal does little to disincentivise dangerous journeys across the Aegean Sea; if anything it entrenches smuggling as the only viable route to Europe. 

What should we be doing instead? Europe needs a refugee policy with both an internal and external dimension. Of course, cooperation with the main Syrian host states – Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan – is crucial. We should be supporting access to jobs, education, and sustainable opportunity for refugees in those countries, and building their sylum systems. But we also have to preserve asylum in Europe and to work to rebuild the EU’s failed Common European Asylum System. There must continue to be safe access to asylum within the EU, direct resettlement from the countries that neighbour Syria, and an equitable sharing of responsibility across all 28 member states.

Professor Alexander Betts is Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. He can be followed on Twitter at @alexander_betts

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