Migrant deal hangs in the balance

By Thanos Davelis, Senior Research Associate, HALC

At the peak of the migrant crisis, Greece’s eastern Aegean islands saw an unprecedented number of migrants and refugees crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey — approximately 6,827 per day (UN figures). The crisis is remembered by vivid images of the Greek coast guard and local volunteers selflessly saving desperate men, women, and children in sinking boats. The incessant flow of people making the journey to northern Europe eventually led to the EU-Turkey deal designed to tackle the migrant crisis. Since the deal came into effect one year ago, Greece has seen a sharp decline in the number of arrivals from Turkey. The agreement, however, remains on shaky ground. Greece, particularly its islands close to Turkey, remain overwhelmed with refugees and migrants, Europe is failing to live up to its pledges to Greece, and Turkey’s efforts to blackmail Europe threaten the survival of the agreement.


Today, the number of refugees and migrants arriving on Greek shores, according to UN figures, has dropped to 62 per day. Despite the slowdown in arrivals, over 60,000 people of concern are trapped within Greece’s borders, with approximately 13,000 stuck on Greece’s eastern Aegean islands in desperate conditions. The EU-Turkey deal is one of the reasons these people are trapped in Greece and cannot leave the islands. The deal was designed to deter refugees from crossing the Aegean into Greece.

Daily map indicating capacity and occupancy (Governmental figures) As of 14 March 2017 08:00 a.m. EET. Source: UNHCR

Migrants who land on Greek shores are processed on the island they arrive. Following a review of their asylum application, they will either be allowed to stay and move to the mainland or will be returned to Turkey. The problem is that the Greek asylum service is stretched beyond its limits and cannot process the thousands of applications, inevitably halting relocations to Turkey. Relocations also hinge on whether Greece considers Turkey a safe third country, an issue the Greek Council of State is preparing to rule on this spring.


In March 2016, a police source on the Greek island of Lesbos told reporters “we are waiting for the staff Europe promised to be able to quickly process asylum applications — translators, lawyers, police officers — because we cannot do it alone.” Today, Greece is still waiting for Europe to live up to its pledges. Following the apparent decline in the number of arrivals as a result of the deal with Turkey, the EU’s lost its sense of urgency with regards to the migrant crisis. European countries began dragging their feet on important EU pledges. Despite promising to relocate 160,000 people from Greece and Italy — Europe’s front line states — approximately 8,000 have been relocated from Greece. Additionally, only a fraction of the asylum experts the EU promised Greece have arrived. To top it off, the EU is looking to reinstate the Dublin rules, and Germany is preparing to send migrants back to Greece.


When the EU decided to outsource its problems to Turkish President Erdogan’s questionable regime, it gambled that Turkey would act in good faith to live up to its promises. Unfortunately, such decisions have consequences. The migrant deal, signed in March 2016, saw Turkey promised aid, visa-free travel for its nationals and accelerated EU membership talks — if it met EU standards and benchmarks on a number of issues — in return for its help in reducing the flow of migrants crossing to Europe. Erdogan views the migrant deal as a political tool to use at his pleasure in an attempt to blackmail Europe. He repeatedly threatened to scrap the deal in an attempt to gain visa free travel for Turkish citizens despite Turkey failing to adhere to European benchmarks. Most recently, in a fierce diplomatic row that continues to unfold between Berlin and Ankara over Turkish politicians campaigning in Europe, Erdogan has threatened — yet again — to tear up the deal.


The situation in Greece is dire. The deal remains under heavy criticism from governments, NGOs, and human rights groups. Europe’s appetite to step up has diminished, especially as migration continues to be a hot issue in a string of European elections. Erdogan is increasingly irrational, escalating tensions with Europe in a fierce war of words as he tries to secure the nationalist vote ahead of Turkey’s crucial referendum in April. The chief architect of the migration deal, Gerald Knaus, currently head of the European Stability Initiative, warned that there is a very real possibility — given Erdogan’s irrational behavior — that the deal could unravel.

“It would be irrational to shut it down, but we’ve heard a few irrational things from Ankara recently, so it is not impossible that something that would be bad for Turkey in this escalating unacceptable rhetoric might also claim the refugee agreement as a victim.”

Should the deal fall apart, Greece would once again become Europe’s buffer state. Foreign Minister Kotzias recently warned that “Some EU countries think that they can use Italy and Greece as closed boxes, where refugees can be stored.” Only this time, with the Balkan borders shut and over 60,000 migrants trapped within the country, a new wave of refugees would overwhelm Greece.

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