The first batch of migrants and refugees arrived on April 4 from Greek islands to Dikili, on the Turkish coast.
Under the stipulations of the agreement, which went into effect on March 20, Ankara will take back all migrants and refugees who cross the Aegean Sea to enter Greece illegally. In return, the European Union will take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and reward it with more money, early visa-free travel and progress in its EU membership talks. The EU-Turkey deal aims to discourage migrants from perilous crossings, often in small boats, and to break the business model of human smugglers. Last year, more than one million migrants and refugees arrived in the EU by boat from Turkey to Greece. Tens of thousands have been stranded in Greece after northern countries closed their borders. About 2.7 million Syrian refugees are registered in Turkey.
A BBC correspondent says there are grave doubts over the viability of the EU plan, not least due to concerns that migrants sent back could be mistreated, with several aid agencies and EU countries refusing to recognize Turkey as a so-called «safe country of origin».
The deal has been strongly criticized by human rights groups.
A report from Amnesty International has accused Turkey of illegally forcing thousands of refugees back to Syria, something Turkey denies.
The organization has called the deal «a historic blow to human rights» and has researched and campaigned extensively on its broad human rights implications in both Greece and Turkey.
According to the organization, the returns in particular are a flagrant violation of EU and international law, making a mockery of the global Refugee Convention. «In their desperation to seal their borders, EU leaders have willfully ignored the simplest of facts: Turkey is not a safe country for Syrian refugees and is getting less safe by the day», said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Director for Europe and Central Asia.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is also worried about the situation the migrants are facing in Greece.
It highlighted inadequate conditions at some registration facilities on Greek islands, so-called hotspots, with poor sanitation, little help available for those with special needs, and chaotic distribution of food. The situation on the Greek mainland «is equally difficult». The UN agency has already suspended some of its services to protest turning hot spots into detention centers where migrants are kept before being sent back to Turkey.
After the deal was signed last month, the UN Secretary General’s special representative for international migration and development, Peter Sutherland, said the pact could even be illegal. «Collective deportations without having regard to the individual rights of those who claim to be refugees are illegal. Now, we don’t know what is going to happen next week, but if there is any question of collective deportations without individuals being given the right to claim asylum, that is illegal», the official explained in an interview.
The news came after mounting opposition within the EU bloc. In the recent weeks since the announcement of the deal, it has attracted criticism from multiple sides. In his comments on the deal, French President François Hollande made France’s stance clear, saying «There cannot be any concessions on the matter of human rights».
EU-Turkey migration draft deal is «unacceptable and contrary to international law», says Spanish Foreign Minister. «What Spain condemns is the possibility of collective expulsions», García-Margallo stated, commenting on the forcible return of migrants from Greece to Turkey, a central element in the deal.
Protesters in Spain labelled the deal as illegal, immoral and shameful, protest organizers contended that the EU initiative breaks the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Geneva Convention for refugees.
Austria's President Heinz Fischer said he was «skeptical» the deal would stop more refugees and migrants from coming to Europe, but denounced human rights abuse in Turkey. «There are many things happening in Turkey right now that I don't like», he told Austrian public radio O1.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz said, «We must not be silent on violations of fundamental rights in Turkey just because we are cooperating on the refugee question».
The Swedish group Lawyers Without Borders has expressed concern over the legality of the deal reached between the EU and Turkey.
«Under this agreement there is a genuine risk that people will be denied the right to an individual assessment because it treats all refugees under a mass agreement», Louise Gunvén, lawyer and board member of Lawyers Without Borders told Swedish news agency TT.
Christian Socialist Union member and Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Soeder criticized the planned visa-free travel, however, arguing that the change could mean more Kurds moving to Germany. «It could ultimately lead to more immigration, especially if you take visa freedom into account. Many, many Kurds fleeing the Turkish government could come to Germany», he said.
The problem is that the deal does not work. More than 2,000 people a day make their way across the Aegean, despite the unfavorable conditions.
NATO has decided to mount patrols in the Aegean to track and deter people smugglers, though it is not yet clear how the operation will work or how it will be linked to the EU efforts. The deal suggests that the refugees coming from other countries than Syria have no valid reasons for claiming asylum, including those fleeing from Islamic State in Iraq, or someone in Afghanistan who worked for NATO and is fleeing the Taliban to avoid the revenge.
As history shows, closing just one route does not solve the problem of migration. The EU may clear up the situation in the Aegean Sea, but another hot spot will open up somewhere else, with more and more people pouring in. On can expect a rise in irregular migration towards Europe via Bulgaria, Italy, Spain, perhaps even through the Black Sea towards Ukraine.
The EU needs a new strategy to deal with the area beyond its borders to the south and south-east. It may not align with the US foreign policy goals, because North America does not face the same problem. As the UN refugee agency reports, 55 per cent of those arriving to Greece over the past 12 months have been Syrian refugees.
They will not stop leaving Syria until the country returns to stability. Joining together with Russia in the effort to establish peace there corresponds to European interests. Inevitably, dealing with the Islamic State in Libya, Iraq and other places requires coordination too. These are the burning issues related to the very survival of Europe. It is more prudent to get down to brass tacks together with Moscow than waste time in the unneeded sanctions war that brings no benefit. This is the wrong moment for creating artificial obstacles on the way of cooperation.
Politically, the deal allows Ankara to have the EU over a barrel. Europe depends on Turkey in preventing the refugee flows. Even though it may not actually be capable of shutting them down, the Union is prepared to offer all sorts of inducements. Besides, it does not control Turkish asylum processing centers and cannot select which people do, and which do not, have a legitimate basis to apply for refugee status in Europe. Furthermore, there is no doubt the Turkish government will insist on concessions in the EU accession talks. It will create great problems as some states, like France, for instance, strongly oppose it. It will also constantly demand more payments for keeping the refugees out. It did such a thing right before the talks on the EU-Turkey agreement began.
Everyone knows it’s just the beginning. Any cooperation with Turkey is doomed to be affected by the problem of its dismal human rights record. Furthermore, it is fool’s errand promising refugee relocations directly from Turkey at the time when Europe feels it just cannot take any more refugees at all.
The deal with Turkey may be better than nothing, but it does not solve the problem. Putting the deal in force is like sticking one’s thumb in the garden hose instead of turning off the tap. That’s the rub. Europe should review its foreign policy priorities to make them aligned with the interests of its peoples. Making deals with Turkey is not a solution.