richard barnes state of exception

My latest column for Al Jazeera English is about the new EU-Turkey deal on migration. It was published under the headline ‘The EU’s stinking refugee deal with Turkey’.

Over the past few weeks, the European Union has been stitching together a deal with Turkey to try to resolve Europe’s refugee crisis. More than half-a-million migrants and refugees have arrived at the EU’s southern and eastern borders this year alone. It has led to EU’s eastern borders being sealed off and bitter arguments over who should take responsibility for the influx. More than 3,000 migrants have drowned at sea, thousands more are trapped in freezing, muddy fields along Europe’s borders. The chaos has undermined the credibility of the EU and boosted the fortunes of anti-immigration groups.

The majority of migrants have come through Turkey, hence the EU’s desire to seal a deal with Ankara. The exact terms are still being hammered out, but the EU seems to have promised Turkey up to $3.3bn to help it host Syrian refugees, take back ‘irregular migrants’ who have entered the EU, and block off the migrant route to the EU by ‘upgrading’ its surveillance and patrols. In return, Turkey has been promised not just cash, but also the easing of visa restrictions on its citizens travelling to the EU, and an ‘unfreezing’ of Turkey’s bid for EU membership.

Many have described this as a ‘win-win’ deal. It is certainly beneficial for politicians on either side, in particular, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Merkel has seen her popularity dip in recent weeks, particularly in the wake of her decision to open Germany’s borders to thousands of more refugees. Erdogan is facing a general election on November 1, just at as he is beset by a host of problems from a slowing economy to a fracturing nation. For both, the deal provides domestic benefits. Merkel seemingly has a solution to an increasingly fraught problem, while Erdogan is able to present himself as an indispensable statesman in the run-up to an election.

For the refugees, however, and for the people of Turkey, there is little to celebrate.

The Turkey deal is the latest in a long series of similar agreements that the EU has organised with non-EU nations. The most notorious of these arrangements was with Libya. In 2010, a year before Britain and France launched air strikes to help bring down Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, the EU concluded a deal with him, agreeing to pay $55m over three years to turn his security forces into de facto border police.

The EU has a similar accord with Morocco and is in the process of recruiting Egypt and Tunisia, too. The aim of all these deals, including the latest with Turkey, is to push the migrant problem beyond the boundaries of Europe so EU leaders can pretend it’s not there.

The deal is built on hypocrisy. With a population of 500 million, the EU has viewed the arrival of half-a-million migrants as an extraordinary crisis. Even the decision this summer to resettle 120,000 refugees led to an unseemly squabble over ‘quotas’. Turkey, with a population of 75 million (less than that of Germany), already hosts over 2 million Syrian refugees – a figure expected to reach more than 2.5 million in the near future. And yet, the EU’s solution to its migration problem is to force even more refugees to remain in Turkey.

Pushing refugees back will do little to improve their lives. In Libya and in Morocco, the security forces have – to earn their EU gold – used brutal methods to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. Turkey will undoubtedly do the same.

Yet, the deal will not prevent migrants from trying to reach Europe any more than the previous deals with Libya or Morocco did. For 25 years, the EU has been constructing a ‘fortress Europe’, militarising border controls and outsourcing the problem to non-EU countries. It has not stopped the migrant flow. Rather, as legal routes into Europe have been blocked, migrants have been forced to follow more dangerous routes and to pay enormous sums to people smugglers. There is little to suggest that the outcome of the Turkey deal will be different.


The deal is unlikely to help the people of Turkey, either. Over the past few years, Erdogan’s government has become increasingly authoritarian, silencing critics, locking up journalists, clamping down on free speech. In the past, when the situation was far better than it is now, the EU used human rights abuses as an excuse for stymieing Turkey’s EU membership. But, now, political expediency means a change in tack. Already, the EU has delayed publication of a critical ‘progress report’ on Turkey to help make the agreement easier. The consequence of the deal will be the creation of greater room for the Turkish government to impose more authoritarian rule.

Not that it is likely to help Turkey join the EU; it is true that both sides are selling the deal as an important step in unfreezing Turkey’s membership application. But it’s a mirage. The whole point of the deal is to allow the EU to push refugees beyond its borders. So, why would the EU accept for membership a country into which it’s pushed the problem? The deal is likely to hinder, not help, Turkey’s EU membership aspirations.

This is a deal aimed not at helping refugees, but at solving the domestic problems of the beleaguered leaders of both Turkey and the EU. That’s why it stinks.


The top image is from ‘State of Exception’, a collaboration between artists Richard Barnes, anthropologist Jason de Leon and curator Amanda Krugliak which uses objects left in the desert by migrants to tell the story of their experiences. The second image is from the Refugee Art Project.


  1. Fayyaz

    Refugee crisis is just one aspect of the West’s misguided military adventure in Middle East. The Curse of ISIS, Suni-Shia show down, Russia ‘s involvement and now American troops on ground will make the matters even worse and increase refugees. Unfortunately Turkey may end up like Pakistan with Afghan refugees and with its own kind of Taliban. Europe may have new Talibans knocking at its doors. Deal with Turkey is not going to stop it. At this juncture unfortunately the events has taken a life of its own and worst is still to come.

  2. damon

    ”In Libya and in Morocco, the security forces have – to earn their EU gold – used brutal methods to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. Turkey will undoubtedly do the same.”

    This is true I’m sure. It is pretty shameful to be encouraging brutality. I spoke to some Africans in Istanbul over ten years ago and they said that they were harassed by the police sometimes, even then.

    Listening to this Radio 4 programme about the trials of young people in Ghana the other day, I wondered just how many would come given the chance.
    The programme was called ”Waithood”

    ”In the first of three programmes Jake Wallis Simons meets young graduates in Ghana who dream of greater things but find the passage to adulthood blocked. Jobs are hard to come by and one student, Kwabena Ankrah, tells us that if you are a graduate in Ghana, you are in the wrong place. If you don’t have a job then it is hard to attract a wife. And, if you do not have a wife you are seen as irresponsible, impotent.”

    This is a link to the programme.

    In it, going abroad if definitely seen as an option. It’s just that there are to few legal channels.
    The USA grants just a couple of thousand of visas for example, and they are greatly oversubscribed.

  3. The Hungarian Prime Minister thinks it is George Soros who is instigating the movements of Muslims into Europe. What do Muslims have to do with Europe? Shouldn’t Muslims help their own? Shouldn’t Muslims stay within their circle of nations? Why doesn’t Saudi Arabia with its trillions of petrol dollars not help the Syrians? Why doesn’t Jordan? Why shouldn’t Turkey help them? Is Northern Europe a wise place to put people who are from a milder climate, a desert climate? And why if Muslims persecute Christians in their countries, why should Muslims want to immigrate into once Christian countries? I think Islam should take care of its own refugees. Syrian, Iraqi and Afghanistan “refugees”, many who are fleeing just want the good life of European countries, should stay in their own sphere.

    Europe is the home land of the Indo-European and it should stay that way. Everybody has their homeland, they need to stay in their homelands.

    • Fayyaz

      Good idea. Then Europe should also mind their own business and not prop up dictators in these lands for personal gains and bring military devastation that give rise to ISIS and Al-Qaeda. This migration is the result of West’s own ill conceived policies.

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