The Turkey Deal: Immorality, impossibility and the EU’s lowest moment

Reading Time: 16 minutes The Turkey Deal: Immorality, impossibility and the EU’s lowest moment

On Sunday (3 April) I was asked to take part in a debate on Al Jazeera about whether the ‘closing’ of routes used by refugees to cross from Turkey to Greek islands would lead to a greater number of people entering the EU from Libya.

In the event, I couldn’t make it. I was in Liverpool to help launch a writers’ festival (Page to Stage) and the local BBC had no studios free for use that evening.

But the question was – and remains – reasonable, and in fact could be joined by another: who in their right minds could think stopping desperate men, women and children reaching safety by one route would stop any refugees reaching the EU?

For background, the questions have arisen because of a deal finalised on 18 March between the EU and Turkey.

Money for traffick – the deal

In brief, the deal – which came into full effect on Monday 4 April – means any refugees who cross from Turkey to Greece from 20 March onwards will be returned to Turkey.

To be fair, there are other details.

One is that the EU has pledged to take one Syrian from a Turkish ‘camp’ for every Syrian deported from Greece to Turkey.

The problems with this are that most Syrians avoid entering the camps because to do so is not only to submit to a uniformed force (of course less dangerous than those destroying homes and ending lives across Syria, but certainly reminiscent in appearance to them, at least), but also to give up all hope of working or seeing their children educated at a real school, and almost all hope of living in anything other than a tent until the Syrian war – now in its sixth year – ends.

Equally, the EU has pledged to take just 72,000 Syrians.

For guidance, from 1 January to 31 March this year, 171,082 people had entered the EU, slightly more than 150,000 landing in Greece.

Forty-six percent of those – 69,000 men, women and children – originated in Syria.

Under the terms of the deal, there are places allotted for just 3,000 more people.

After that, the portcullis slams shut, leaving hundreds of thousands of people with nowhere to go, and Turkey with responsibility for all of them.

A second is that the EU has pledged to hand Turkey a total of €6bn for the next three years to provide shelter, food and education to the Syrians entering the state.

And the numbers here are far bigger. Because while the EU has seen just over one million refugees (including all those from African states, as well as the Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis who have made the crossing from Turkey) enter in the last 15 months, Turkey has 2.7 million Syrians alone.

That is, the 28 states of the EU have, on average, to find space for 41,000 people each. Turkey, a single state, and not in the world’s richest 20 nations, is working to take in 2,700,000 Syrians, with Iraqis, Pakistanis, Afghans and others also desperately seeking safety there.

Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in March 2011, Turkey has spent around €9bn on services for people fleeing the conflict (it has the world’s largest refugee population by number: Lebanon has the largest by proportion of total national population) – roughly €1.8bn per year, on average.

But that figure rocketed to almost €440 million per month in the last three months of last year: if that continues, as appears likely, Turkey’s annual spend on men, women and children fleeing war, chaos and death will rise to more than €5.2bn per year.

Even if we were to charitably overlook the fact that the deal is an exercise in breath-taking cynicism – literally sharing a tiny proportion (1.25 per cent) of its 160bn per year aid budget (itself less than one per cent of the total wealth generated by the 28 member states each year) with a state which has more than 64 times as many Syrian refugees as each EU member on average could be expected to receive, solely to avoid allowing a statistically-tiny number of desperate men, women and children entering the world’s richest political bloc – it is also financially doomed to fail: Turkey’s spending on refugees is unlikely to fall. Even if it stays the same, the EU’s payment to keep Syrians at bay will cover only a little more than a third of Turkey’s expenditure.

A number of commentators have described the deal as ‘sordid’ – though not all for the same reasons. It is hard to imagine anything more sordid than the extremely wealthy offering a tiny fraction of their wealth in order to avoid having to aid desperate, death-stalked, people.

Yet that is the deal the EU has done with Turkey.

Turkey – a safe country?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a great deal of sympathy for Turkey.

Despite having a government whose political outlook I oppose, and a President whose attitude to domestic policy astonishes me, the state deserves some credit, not least because it has – along with Lebanon and Jordan – responded to the urgent need for safety of millions of people threatened by war, chaos, terror, starvation and disease far, far better than any of the world’s other nations.

It houses more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees, while the EU – a 28-state organisation which is the richest political union of this or any preceding era – is refusing to accept more than 800,000 in total.

It is the NATO member state closest to the Syrian conflict, but despite the (geographical) risk of attack from the Assad regime, continues to offer shelter to those targeted by the Syrian dictator, as well as by the wider conflict.

I am also – because I believe the truth is important if we are to ever unpick and remedy the serious crises wracking large areas of the world – outspoken against false claims made by Russia regarding Turkish activity in Syria, and careful to note that the Turkish conflict with its Kurdish population is a great deal more complicated than either side is generally willing to admit or explain.

But the EU’s deal with Turkey relies on the latter now being considered a ‘safe state’ for refugees. And there are significant reasons to take issue with that claim.

I was in Turkey while the deal was being negotiated, and in Izmir while the city hosted Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davogtlu and Greek PM Alexis Tsipras’ talks over some of its details.

In those few weeks, the Turkish President Recep Erdogan ordered the arrest of a media owner because of a website and newspaper criticising his and his government’s anti-terror activities, three university lecturers were arrested in terror charges for signing a petition calling for Turkey to cease its attacks on Turkish Kurd towns, an IS terrorist exploded a bomb in one of Istanbul’s busiest streets, Erdogan announced plans to extend the legal definition of ‘terrorism’ to include the reporting by journalists of attacks or government responses to them in a way the government disapproves of.

In the South East of Turkey, Turkish soldiers and Kurdish rebels continue to attack one another, while less than two weeks before I arrived, Kurdish terrorists killed 37 people in a bombing on the capital, Ankara, where another Kurdish attack in February killed 30 people, and in October IS suicide bombers killed 109 people.

Since 1 December, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have uncovered and reported a series of examples of Turkish police and soldiers arresting Syrian refugees and deporting them to Syria. Some are alleged to have been tortured before being delivered back to the war-torn state they had fled in fear for their lives. Most report they were forced to hand over cash for the privilege.

It is also clear that in spite of official Turkish government policy, many Syrian and other refugees in Turkey have been unable to access housing, health care and education because staff at local levels have simply refused them, and many thousands – including children – have been forced into black-market labour.

In Izmir, thousands live in ‘homes’ which include three-walled, no-roofed hovels hardly worthy of the name.

This list is not intended to paint Turkey as the worst of all possible places. As noted above, it has responded heroically to the enormous need of millions of desperate people. The Kurdish conflict requires more sober analysis – from every perspective – than it regularly receives in the UK or within Turkey itself, and Russian allegations can be effectively written off in the absence of any evidence to support them.

Equally, I have been a regular visitor to Turkey in recent years, and have perhaps seen more than some other observers.

But despite all that, it cannot possibly be argued that the EU does not know any of these things.

In which case, it has to be considered that it has simply ignored them, in its desperation to avoid having to directly engage with and help people in urgent need of assistance, and under the immediate shadow of war and terror.

For any individual or state to drop its principles to do so would be embarrassing and inexplicable. For the world’s richest political bloc, it is unforgivable.

Making the Greek islands prison camps

Even if the EU deal had not been so cynical, and even if there were not serious concerns about Turkey’s ability to cope, and ability to withstand what appears to be significant EU pressure to be harder, rather than less inflexible, towards refugees, there would still be significant problems with what came into effect on Monday (4 April).

One of the major problems is that in effect, the deal makes the Greek islands – some of the most beautiful places on earth, and places which it is no exaggeration to name as centres of cultural exchange between European and other civilisations for as long as European civilisation has existed (the Middle East was rather faster to develop cities and a recognisable culture), into prison camps.

That is, by the definition of the deal as it was agreed and as it has since been acted upon (anyone arriving at a Greek island since 22 March has been ‘processed’ under the deal’s terms, though it was not until Monday this week that men, women and children began to be actively deported under its auspices), landing at the Greek islands from Turkey without specific permission from the EU to do so is now a crime, and anyone who does so is treated as a criminal, including being moved to and detained in processing centres on those islands.

Lesbos, Chios, and many others like them, are for anyone not lucky enough to hold an EU passport, effective no-go areas, and for anyone desperate enough to attempt to get there without permission, active prison camps.

The deal may be an expression of the EU’s desperation – though it is faced with very little to be desperate about, as it contains three of the world’s six richest states, and four of the top ten by GDP, is the wealthiest political bloc ever to have existed on Earth, and the 800,000 Syrian people to have arrived so far, represent less than a fifth of one per cent of its entire population – but it is also an expression of its failure to think, or to live up to the standards of humanity, openness and decency it has set for itself.

It was – extremely rapidly – noted as such by not only one of the world’s best-regarded international aid organisations, but also by the organisation the world designed and developed to respond to and prevent crises like the Syrian Civil War and its related emergencies.

On Monday 22 March, perhaps the darkest day in the history of the European Union, the United Nations and Medecines Sans Frontieres (MSF) announced they would withdraw from the newly-converted Greek island prison camps.

Unicef, the UN’s children-focussed aid body, warned that not only would the EU’s deal with Turkey do nothing to improve the urgent humanitarian crisis affecting 19,000 refugee children stranded in Greece, (40 per cent of refugees in Greece are children), it could also force children and families to put themselves at even greater risk, by forcing them to attempt even more dangerous sea crossings than those between Turkey and the Greek islands (Chios is five miles from the West Turkey coast).

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – the UN’s body with responsibility for the survival and welfare of all refugees, went further.

It announced it would no longer carry out any activities at the so-called ‘refugee hotspots’ in Greece – formerly refugee camps, and now detention and processing centres, where those who arrive at the islands from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan (all via Turkey) are now transported and held until they are deported.

The UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told the Palais des Nations, Geneva, that it would maintain a presence at the detention centres to monitor refugees’ human rights provision, and procedures b which they can seek asylum, but: ‘Under the new provisions {of the EU’s deal}, these sites have now become detention facilities. In line with our policy on opposing mandatory detention, we have suspended activities there.’

MSF’s head of mission in Greece, Marie Elisabeth Ingres, announced: ‘We will not allow our assistance to be utilised for a mass expulsion operation, and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants. Continuing to work inside would make us complicit in a system we consider to be unfair and inhumane.’

MSF and UNHCR continue to work – amongst other places – in South Sudan, Yemen and Syria. The EU has done what they have not: created a situation in which people’s needs and rights are treated with such outright disregard that neither will work under it.

4 April – the EU’s first ever deportation of refugees

On 4 April 2016, three boats containing 202 men, women and children, arrived from Lesbos and Chios at Dikili port. At almost exactly the same moment, a boat containing 40 refugees landed at Lesbos.

It was hard to understand exactly why the boat heading East should be regarded as a legal, civilised vessel behaving acceptably, while the one heading West should be regarded as a slight against humanity, an ‘attack’, as it were, on the safehouse of the European Union; how the former was not the one regarded as an attack on the EU, or at least the principles of fairness and humanity for which it is supposed to stand.

It is also – and this remains seldom mentioned in most discussion – something of a stretch even to regard these deportations as logical. Syrians are not Turkish. There is simply no reason why any Syrian should ever be transported – against their wishes – to Turkey.

Officially, Monday 4 April was the first day of deportation of refugees from Greece. In fact, it was the first time in its history that Europe had gathered as one to actively expel refugees from its borders.

In the event, the majority of those (200 of the 202 men, women and children) on the boats were not Syrian, but Pakistanis (who had fled Taliban attacks in the state’s North West) and Afghans (fleeing the same organisation’s repression and violence in their homeland). Neither of these nationalities have any ties to Turkey either, and there is no sensible or logical reason to deport them to the state: the EU is acting out of desperation, simply expelling people to the first place it can force them into, directly against their will (on Sunday 3 April, protests at which refugees were shouting ‘No Torkia’ took place at several detention centres on Greek islands, including Lesbos and Chios, merely confirming the obvious fact that these people do not want to be sent to Turkey. They are simply being forced to).

Equally, even if we were to accept that Turkey either can or should be the sole responder to a situation in which people fleeing terror and death attempt to enter the EU (and of course it neither can nor should) we must also remember that Afghans and Pakistani people are not entitled by Turkish law to remain in the state as refugees.

That is, 200 people herded onto boats and expelled from the EU are not being sent to Turkey, but back to the very countries and situations they have fled because they fear they will be tortured and/or killed.

Once again, this information is not ‘hidden’. There is absolutely no way that the EU is not already fully aware of what it has done.

Nor are its members even working hard to help the people who have already entered the EU. In September 2015, the Union’s Emergency Relocation Mechanism set in place a system under which 160,000 men, women and children seeking asylum should be relocated. By 21 March, just 953 people had been resettled.

It is hard to imagine a clearer indication that for most EU member states, the priority is not to ‘help’ desperate people – to ensure they are safe, have decent clothes, housing, food to eat and water to drink – but to keep them away from their own homelands.

 

Pragmatism: but will it work?

The deal is defective morally and financially.

But if we accept that the EU’s members already know this, it must be concluded that neither of those things are particularly important to them (and of course, the EU’s outlay is extremely small, proportionally-speaking).

But the final major problem should have been of central importance to them: it is simply impossible to imagine any way in which the deal will deliver what the EU wants. That is, it’s extraordinarily unlikely that it will stop desperate men, women and children attempting to reach the EU – and succeeding.

The EU hopes that by paying Turkey €6bn over the next three years, it will pass the ‘problem’ of helping innocent people stay alive, live decent lives and contribute to local, national and global communities (a thing the EU can easily afford to do) to a state outside its borders.

But Syrian refugees – and others – are people, with the same desires, drives and ambition as any others.

Turkey has already ‘experimented’ with returning Syrians to Syria, but with little effect. They are people who face death and horror at home, and have already left once.

The only effect of forcibly returning them to Turkey has been that on their second attempt to leave Syria, they have been far more careful not to announce themselves to authorities, meaning that in fact, the provision of services to refugees and the systematic organisation of services for entire communities across Turkey has become more difficult, as thousands of people exist ‘unannounced’ on society’s fringes.

Attempts to force people back into war-zones does not keep them in those zones. Neither should they. Instead, they ‘disappear’ people from statistical analysis, such as that needed to ensure that people across societies are provided with sufficient services, including healthcare, shelter and education – however they are paid for.

When these services fail, it does not lead to people voluntarily returning to (or refusing to leave) places where they will be tortured or killed; it leads to them committing crimes to survive, begging or dying on the streets. It should not need saying that the EU would do better to avoid this.

Nor has the deal and its announcement noticeably reduced the numbers of people attempting to cross to the EU by the safest, Turkey to Greece route. In the four days following the 18 March announcement of the deal, more than 2,000 people arrived in the Greek islands.

But even more important – because it is both literally a matter of life and death, and because it is at the heart of why any policy of forced deportation of people fleeing violent death is bankrupt not only morally but practically – is that the crossing from West Turkey to the Greek islands is not the only route to the EU, just the easiest (the horror being that thousands of people have already died making even this ‘simplest’ of crossings).

Alternatives include a land crossing via Istanbul and Bulgaria, a similar land crossing to the north, and then across Russia’s border with Finland (or almost any point between Turkey and Russia) – all borders which simply cannot be policed every moment of every day, and which desperate people will cross to escape death – anyone would.

Far more dangerous, however, are the alternative sea routes. Desperate people do desperate things, and included within those are the possibility of making far longer, even more dangerous sea crossings through the central Mediterranean region.

It is not easy to travel from Turkey South and West to Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, but routes to enter the EU are already being used by people fleeing war and terror.

On Saturday 19 March, one day after the EU announced its deal with Turkey, the Italian coastguard rescued 900 people stranded at sea who had crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa. This has become such a regular occurrence that it went largely unreported.

And if boats block a passage to Greek islands – or the threat of arrest deters desperate people from landing there – it is impossible to believe that people will not try another route.

The fact remains that people are making dangerous sea crossings not for fun, or because they enjoy it, but because they are desperate, and because the alternatives are worse.

The EU’s deal will not prevent people from crossing the Mediterranean, or from entering the EU. It is most likely simply to risk even more deaths on one of the world’s calmest large seas, and prevent the EU from even knowing how many people have entered it in recent weeks, months and years.

Practically, the deal is a disaster.

The answer to the Al Jazeera question, is ‘almost certainly, yes’. But the increased number of people crossing specifically from Libya might not increase massively.

Instead, what is likely is the ‘spread’ of people crossing stretching from Western Turkey to a vast region of the Western Middle East and North Africa. This will hugely increase the number of people at sea for longer periods, on far more dangerous routes, and when those who do survive reach land, they will either have done so from states with which the EU has no ‘deal’, from states like Libya which nobody can pretend are ‘safe’, or they will attempt to simply ‘disappear’.

And the latter process will create a far worse challenge for the EU than finding shelter for some desperate people who are eager to work: an ‘invisible’, but real ‘underclass, thousands-strong, with no alternative but to beg or commit crimes to stay alive, and with no recourse to the health and education services which could help them become functioning, contributing members of society.         

The heart of the problem: the EU’s Members

Ironically, despite its abject failure to respond morally, proportionally, or sensibly to the desire of people to escape war, terror, starvation, ill-health, torture and death and enter the EU, the EU is almost the perfect body to respond to exactly such a situation.

It is a collection of many of the world’s richest states, not even close to overpopulated, with central governance and financial institutions, and a stated commitment to working for the collective benefit of all its people, regardless of religion, sex, age or race.

It is also a collection of people speaking an estimated (at least) 37 different languages, and of states with direct and successful modern and historical experience of immigration and cross-migration. It is almost impossible, in fact, to imagine an organisation better able and better suited to rising to and dealing with this emergency.

The reasons for its failure to do so are, as noted previously several times on this site, nothing to do with the EU as a body, its structure, outlook, or capacities, but the individual interests of its members.

At either end of the continent, the UK in the West, and Hungary in the East, two states responded to the gravest crisis of the modern era by setting dogs and armed police on unarmed men, women and children, and building fences to keep them out (at Calais, in the UK’s case, and on its Southern border, in Hungary’s).

Throughout 2014 and 2015, as the EU moved (slowly) to respond to the increasing number of desperate people seeking safety within its borders, the UK and Hungary were joined by Spain and Poland (occasionally by others, too) in voting against the measures the EU proposed.

It was in this context – the EU being prevented from responding to a crisis by its members – that Macedonian police opened fire on unarmed, innocent people at its border: twice.

It was also in this context that states led by Austria built walls at their borders, to prevent people not from entering their states, but from travelling through them to reach Germany and Sweden.

Citing a ‘crisis’ created in part by EU member states, EU member states unleashed violence on innocent and defenceless men, women and children, and put up walls to keep out desperate people.

Within that crisis, inflicted upon it by the exact individuals who are now the loudest critics of the few EU states which did attempt to aid people in desperate need, the EU struck the deal which betrays every foundation of its existence, and is now forcibly deporting refugees for the first time in its history.

Solution?

In the end, nothing is over until it’s over. In the same way as the Arab Spring has not yet ‘succeeded’ or ‘failed’ because it is still happening, the EU’s deal and deportation of refugees is by no means irreversible or unalterable.

And the EU’s advantage is that it is uniquely well-placed to rise to – and solve – the international refugee crisis.

I have several times noted on this site how this can be done, but in short, the EU only has to agree to act as a single organisation, rather than as a disparate group of self-interested squabbling individuals.

It needs to create and follow through with a system by which people can be shared across the continent, along with a series of rules about what those people should be able to expect when they arrive.

It must ensure it – not desperate people with little or no experience of the sea, or those who wish to exploit them – controls the sea routes to the EU, providing safe transit for refugees.

Whether this means it provides accommodation for those applying for entry within Turkey and other states, or within the EU itself, it must provide that accommodation, and ensure it – not individual states – runs this application process, providing safe, reliable transport to all those who need to make the sea crossing.

Though wars and terror across the world fuel the international refugee crisis, the chaos it seems to represent has been created by EU member states.

The positive to be drawn from that is that it is well within the EU’s capabilities to address that chaos, and overcome it.

It cannot do so, however, by deporting desperate men, women and children from its territory, forcing people to hide from it, and risking increased death on the open seas.

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