On 29th November, when the EU was just eleven months into its year of failure, it struck a deal with Turkey in an attempt to address part of the international refugee crisis.
It is remarkable – and flawed.
Under the deal, entitled the ‘EU-Turkey Action Plan’ the EU has agreed to hand Turkey €3 billion in exchange for the latter ‘more extensively’ policing its borders to ‘reduce the number of illegal arrivals in the EU’.
In a move entirely unprecedented in the EU’s history, the UK was the first state to pledge its share of the cash – €400 million.
For those who regularly read this blog, and/or have kept abreast of the crisis to date, this fact in itself should set alarm bells ringing.
To date, the most far-reaching contributions of the UK to the international crisis have been to lead calls to refuse a continent-wide quota system for housing desperate people, erect walls around the crossing points from France to the UK, and set dogs on those who approached them.
It has also absolutely refused to engage with The Jungle, a camp at Calais where around 6,000 desperate people are ‘living’ in tents, and being denied even the right to apply to legally enter the UK.
And as noted above, the UK has never before been the first EU state to pledge money for a single EU project.
The clue as to why it has done so now is also the reason the plan is so seriously wrong-headed.
Because the Action Plan does not request Turkey work with refugees to dissuade them risking their lives, or help them to find safer, legal ways of attempting to reach safety in the EU. It is a massive cash payment in exchange for which Turkey must ‘police its borders’ to ‘reduce’ the number of people who arrive in the EU.
And Turkey has responded with enthusiasm.
On 29th November, as if to show willing, it announced it had arrested 1,300 refugees. By 4th December, that number had increased to 3,000 – by far the largest number of arrests in one operation since the start of the Syrian Civil War.
Before we go any further, it is worth noting that I have been to Turkey many times in the course of the last two years. I have met and worked with humanitarians there, many of whom are Turkish, who are dedicated to helping refugees from the Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi wars, among others.
And Turkey itself has responded remarkably well to the Syrian Civil War. More than 2.2m Syrian refugees are now in Turkey, and the state has the world’s largest population of refugees. It has worked hard to ensure children have school places, and all have access to healthcare and other services.
So it would be extremely difficult for any state anywhere in the world to take the ‘moral high-ground’ over Turkey when it comes to refugees, and certainly none can claim to have responded ‘better’ to the Syrian Civil War (though Lebanon and Jordan deserve a great deal of credit, too).
Turkey, as much as any state, and far more than almost all, has led the way in response to this crisis. Europe’s nations could and should have followed its example a long time ago.
But it is reasonable, at the same time as praising achievements, to highlight concerns and failures when they occur. And the Action Plan has raised a number of the latter.
Even as it was struck, it was clear that one effect of the deal would be an increase in Turkish police activity relating to refugees.
In itself, this need not be a huge problem, except that the vast majority of them had not only committed no crime, but were also desperate, vulnerable people, who were fleeing chaos in which uniformed men were either firing weapons which killed and maimed, or uniformed men represented regimes which beat and tortured prisoners, or in many cases, both.
And refugees are people. They, too, can read newspapers and watch television. So they were of course aware that the Turkish government had been paid a huge amount of money by the EU to arrest them. The obvious response of those people was to attempt to ‘disappear’ – to hide, before attempting a dangerous sea crossing to the EU – in order to avoid arrest.
This is a disaster in the making. In cities like Izmir, where up to 300,000 Syrians await the chance to board dangerous boats to the EU, people are living in shacks without roofs or windows.
They urgently need to be seen, and to be helped with food, winter clothes, blankets and wherever possible weatherproof housing or shelter. Their children need and deserve to attend school. And it is only by engaging with them that organisations – and for that matter, the Turkish government – can help convince them not to board dangerous and overfilled boats in the dead of night.
None of those things should be prevented by the understandable fear of what might happen if they are arrested.
Matters are also complicated by the fact that although Syrian refugees are entitled to use services (though there are a number of reports of incidences of staff refusing to serve them despite their legal rights), they are not automatically-entitled to work.
Combined with fear of arrest, this pushes many into black-market agrarian labour groups, in which even the low wages generally paid to such workers are slashed by gang leaders taking up to 50 per cent of the money they receive. This practice, and the poverty it causes for entire families and communities, is another reason the refugees in Turkey need to be seen, so they can be helped.
And when people are arrested, their treatment appears to be less than ideal.
In a report ‘Europe’s Gatekeeper’ issued on 16th December, Amnesty International highlighted examples of refugees being arrested, transported to detention centres up to 1,000km from where they had been apprehended, and held without notification being sent to their families or travelling companions.
Not only is this illegal, it is also a punishment not only of those arrested, but also those who rely upon them, who have fled often horrendous and terrifying situations of torture, war and chaos along with them and are now left alone, with no idea where their friend or family member has gone.
Some claim to have been beaten while in the centres, others report being asked whether they would like to be returned to Syria, then charged cash for the process (it is reasonable to ask why anyone would agree to be sent back to a state like Syria, but there are in fact two major reasons: first, to escape, because previous experience has taught you that police forces are not simple arbiters of the law, but in fact dispensers of pain and torture; second, because now they have been arrested, many feel their best chance is to re-enter Syria, and from there try again to cross Turkey, this time without being detected and without any details – save that they have ‘returned to Syria’ – about them on record).
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia, commented: ‘Pressuring refugees and asylum-seekers to return is not only unconscionable, but it’s also in direct breach of international law.’
Not only that, but this Christmas, a contact of mine on Lesvos, Greece, to which many thousands of Syrian refugees have crossed from Turkey in the last 12 months, revealed that some of those getting of the boats reported that Turkish ‘sea police’ had kept pace with them for part of their journey, and attempted to force water on board the boats in which the refugees were travelling.
In fairness, the latter incidents took place in the darkness, and at sea. It is quite possible that in the poor light an already terrified group of people heard and felt the excess water slapping against the side of their boat, some lapping over it, and believed, rather than were sure, that it was a deliberate act by Turkish police.
If it did, in fact, happen as they said, it is perfectly possible too, that individual officers were working against their government’s wishes. It certainly seems unlikely that the Turkish government would specifically instruct its police to attempt to sink boatloads of refugees off its own shoreline.
But what is certainly the case is that Turkish police on sea have at best treated terrified and largely innocent men, women and children, with too little care and attention, and that Turkish police on land appear to have broken international law by beating and terrifying some prisoners, while sending others back to the conflict-riven chaos of Syria, charging them for the ‘service’.
And at the heart of all this – or to be more accurate, looming in the shadows behind it – is the EU, the world’s largest political bloc, which has chosen to pay another state to ‘deal with’ the ‘problem’ of desperate men, women and children, turning a blind eye to the way this is actually done.
It would be remiss not to mention that there are parts of the deal which are rather more positive.
The EU pledges, for example, to take 500,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey every year. This is a promising and positive step, if it is ever acted upon. But it should be noted that this would still be less than one half of the number to have entered the EU in 2015, and less than a quarter of the total number of Syrians already in Turkey – a number which grows by the day.
This piece is not intended to be entirely critical of Turkey. No state – in purely numerical terms – has done more to address and deal with the vast crisis caused by the Syrian Civil War. Only Lebanon and Jordan deserve to be mentioned in the same breath.
But it is to highlight that tied up with that excellent response, are some less than appetising truths about the experience of refugees from one of the world’s most bitter conflicts.
And it is to note that driving some of those acts is a vast sum of cash handed over by the EU, a political bloc which is still refusing to believe it must play a part in solving the crisis, and instead prefers to try to hold it at arm’s length, while turning its face away.
The last post on this site ended on a similar note, but it is a point worth making more than once: 2015 saw the EU fail on all counts related to the international refugee crisis. Now – 2016 – is the time for it to start succeeding.
It can only do so if it tries, but it can do so. It is what the people of Syria, of Europe, of Turkey, and the world, deserve.