barbed wire

A shorter version of this essay was published in Al Jazeera English under the headline ‘The dark side of the EU-Turkey refugee deal’.

How do you solve a crisis? By brushing it far enough away from your gaze so you can pretend that it is no longer there. That, at least, appears to be the European Union’s approach. For more than a year, the migration crisis has torn at the heart of the EU, creating deep tensions between members, and raising questions about the future of freedom of movement within the union, and indeed about the future of the union itself.

Europe’s leaders have been desperately trying to figure out a solution. This week, after months of negotiation, they stitched together a deal with Turkey. Its main aim is to allow the EU to push the problem far enough away to pretend that it is not there.

Under the deal, the details of which are still being hammered out, all irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece will be sent back. A ‘one for one’ agreement will allow one Syrian from a Turkish refugee camp to be resettled in the EU, for every Syrian refugee returned to Turkey from Greece. For non-Syrians, the route to Europe is entirely cut off.

In return, the EU has promised to speed up plans for Turks to travel without visas inside the EU and to actually pay Ankara some of the €3 bn that was promised in October for Turkish help in closing its borders to migrants. Turkey has reportedly asked for an extra €3 bn, which is still being negotiated. Turkey has also demanded that concrete steps be taken to resume its accession negotiations with the EU.

Donald Tusk, the President of the EU Council, has described the deal as a ‘breakthrough’ and ‘historic’. It is, in fact, immoral and unworkable.

The EU has a population of more than 500 million and a per capita GDP of around $30,000.Turkey has a population of 75 million and a per capita GDP of $10500. If the arrival in the EU of a million migrants is an unacceptable imposition and the cause of a major crisis, how does the EU imagine that offloading migrants to Turkey will be any less of an imposition or crisis? Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU commissioner in charge of migration, has described the bottleneck of migrants in Greece, created by the closing of borders further north, as raising ‘the possibility of a humanitarian crisis of a large scale’. Why should bottling migrants up in Turkey rather than in Greece be any different?

Leave aside the morality, think of the practicalities. What the deal envisages is the forced collective expulsion of migrants from Greece to Turkey. Do EU leaders think that tens of thousands of migrants will meekly accept their fate and return quietly? If the past year has shown us anything, it is the willingness of migrants to take enormous risks and put up with great hardships. It has shown, too, their willingness to stand up to the authorities if pushed too far – think of the scenes in Hungary this summer, or on the Greek-Macedonian border now. If only a small number of those being forcibly repatriated resist, one can only imagine the chaos and brutality that might ensue.

The numbers of migrants coming to Europe are indeed large. But it is worth putting these numbers in context. One million migrants constitutes less than 0.2 per cent of the EU’s population. Turkey with a population one seventh that of the EU is already host to 2.7 million Syrian refugees. (Those are the official figures; the real number is likely to be over 3 million.) There are already 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon – 20 per cent of the population. That is the equivalent of Europe playing host to 100m refugees. Pakistan and Iran each have over 1 million refugees within their borders.

Some of the poorest countries in the world, in other words, already bear the greatest burden when it comes to helping refugees. If these countries were to adopt Europe’s attitude, there really would be a crisis. This is perhaps the most immoral aspect of the EU’s policy: at its heart seems to be the idea that dealing with migrants and refugees should be an issue primarily for poor countries.

Moustafa Jacoub Syrian Exile

Far from the Turkey deal being ‘historic’, it follows in the pattern of previous EU migration policies. Since the 1990s, the EU has adopted a three-pronged strategy: criminalising migrants; militarising border controls; and outsourcing the problem by paying non-EU states – most notoriously Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya – huge amounts of money to act as Europe’s immigration police; in effect, relocating Europe’s borders to beyond Europe. Push the problem outside of Europe and pretend that it’s not there.

Many commentators have complained that Turkey has held the EU to ransom with its demands. In fact, the EU has held itself to ransom, in its desperation to conclude a migration deal.

Over the past few years, Turkish president Recip Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP government has become increasingly authoritarian, silencing critics, locking up journalists, camping down on free speech. The state takeover last week of Zaman, Turkey’s largest newspaper and a vocal critic of Erdoğan, effectively destroyed any shred of press freedom in the country.

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. Now, political expediency requires the EU to turn a blind eye to even the gravest of attacks on freedoms. The EU is so desperate for a deal – any deal – to lessen the impact of migration that it is willing itself to trample over the rights of migrants and to watch as Erdoğan tramples over the freedoms of the Turkish people. The deal exposes EU strictures about democracy, liberty and freedom to be so much hollow straw.

The one country that has come out of this whole debacle with honour is Greece. Effectively abandoned by the rest of the EU as Macedonia and other countries to the north have closed their borders, and suffering grievously from an economic crisis and from austerity policies imposed primarily at the behest of the EU, the people of Greece have nevertheless shown an admirable moral commitment to the migrants. True, there have been some anti-migrant demonstrations, and the far-right Golden Dawn won 7 per cent of the vote in last year’s general election. But mostly Greeks have shown enormous solidarity.

Some 14,000 migrants are trapped in Idomeni on the Greek side of the Macedonian border, after the Macedonian authorities decided to allow only a handful to enter every day. ‘I have admiration for these people because they still have hope’, said the local deputy mayor, Evelina Politidou, adding that helping migrants was a ‘moral obligation’.

The island of Lesbos, close to the Turkish coast, is at the very centre of the crisis. The number of migrants who have arrived on the island in the first two months of 2016 alone is larger than Lesbos’ normal population. Yet the locals continue to support migrants with food, shelter and solidarity.

Meanwhile the EU, despite commitments to relocate 66,400 refugees from Greece, has provided places for just 325.‘It is amazing’, as the UNHCR chief António Guterres told Lesbos mayor Spyros Galinos recently, ‘that on a small island you are managing, whereas in a big Europe, with half a billion people, they are finding it so difficult.

There is a lesson there in morality and solidarity that all Europe could learn.


The second image is of Syrian refugees by Moustafa Jacoub, illustrating the poem ‘Blade’ by Kirun Kapur. It was part of the ‘Responses’ feature by Broadsided Press in which writers and artists created work about the Syrian refugee crisis.


  1. JohnC

    The EU per capita GDP is surely over twice the figure shown, though a comparison based on purchasing power parity is probably more relevant.

  2. It’s difficult for me to grasp the complete picture of the migrant issue from radio and TV sound bites. Your articles fill in the gaps and clarify the situation for me very well. Thank you.

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