Founding Director of Migration Policy Institute Europe (Brussels)
Three months after the entry into effect of the high-profile EU-Turkey deal to manage the unprecedented flows of asylum seekers and migrants crossing the Aegean, the apparent success of the deal is clear. Flows have precipitously dropped, with average daily arrivals to the Greek islands down to around 50, from highs of nearly 2000 in the month prior to the deal, and over 10,000 at the height of the flow. European leaders have pronounced the initiative a resounding success, and the European crisis over.
If arrival numbers are the sole benchmark of success or failure, then the goals of this deal have been met, and from a political perspective the deal has been a necessary intervention to reduce rising levels of chaos and public anxiety. However, the arrangement may prove a short-term intervention with more harmful long-term ripple effects.
The reduction in flows has depended on swift action from the Turkish government, coupled with the message that has been sent to would-be arrivals by closure of the routes out of Greece, through the Western Balkans. Implementation on the European side, by contrast, has been haphazard, and particularly on the simpler aspects of the deal, such as reception conditions. On the Greek islands, open reception centres designed for short-term stays have been poorly converted into overcrowded, closed centres with conditions reported as dire by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in June, and policy-makers show little impetus to address this. Registration and processing of cases remain slow and, as predicted by many observers, few individuals have actually been returned to Turkey under the terms of the deal. As a result, thousands sit in limbo on the Aegean islands, with few policy-makers paying attention to their plight.
Similarly, the relocation and resettlement processes, from Greece and Turkey respectively, remain sluggish. In Greece, fewer than 600 asylum-seekers were relocated elsewhere across the European Union between mid-May and mid-June, whilst a total of 511 Syrians have been resettled from Turkey under the one-for-one agreement (nonetheless outpacing returns of Syrian nationals). The other quid pro quo— a 6 billion euro ‘Facility for Refugees’ to be paid to Turkey out of EU and Member State budgets — had disbursed just 105 million euros worth of projects by mid-June, and contracted a further 45 million euros. The European Commission is still awaiting full pledges of financial support from some EU Member States.
But it is possibly the messaging of the deal which is proving most problematic. First, it was intended to send a strong message to European publics that the EU and its constituent governments had ‘managed’ the crisis. It has achieved this in the short term, but by focusing narrowly on the nearest perceived threat — flows transiting through Turkey — the EU has perhaps underestimated other long-standing challenges, most visibly management of the dangerous maritime route between Libya and Italy. The EU-Turkey deal, for many reasons, is unlikely to be replicable elsewhere. But with public confidence in government’s ability to manage migration lower than a year ago, the perception of unmanageable crisis remains nearby. Second, the high pricetag of the EU-Turkey deal has sent a message to other non-EU countries that their cooperation on migration is a commodity that is rapidly increasing in value.
But most importantly, the deal sends a message to major refugee-hosting countries — the vast majority of which are developing countries —– that their responsibilities to the vulnerable and displaced are optional, and can be outsourced. Political leaders have unfortunately brief memories. Now that the European panic has abated, attention on the continent to the global refugee crisis has been set to one side. However, it still looms large for many countries across the world, not least within the Syrian neighbourhood. The recent statements of the Kenyan government regarding closure of the Dadaab camp should be a strong warning sign to those EU leaders reluctant to accept responsibility for international protection: the rest of the world is listening, and may have learned the lessons of the EU-Turkey deal a little too well.
Elizabeth Collett is director of Migration Policy Institute Europe, a nonprofit, independent research institute based in Brussels.