Turkey, EU and the imperilled refugee deal

Turkey announced last week it would not block the passage of refugees wishing to head to Europe amid escalating violence in northwestern Syria and the risk of a fresh influx of hundreds of thousands of people from the war-torn country through its southern frontier.

The move on Thursday threatens to unravel a deal Turkey signed with the European Union in 2016 to stop arrivals in the bloc in exchange for funds allocated to the handling of the millions of the refugees it hosts, among other benefits.

Following the opening of the Turkish side of the border, which came hours after the killing of dozens of Turkish soldiers in Syrian government air raids, dramatic footage showing refugees trying to cross over sea and land into neighbouring Greece – an EU member – have been widely shared.

Turkey had threatened many times in the past to go ahead with such a move, accusing the EU of not fulfilling its promises.

“We have been calling for a more equitable burden and responsibility-sharing for a long time,” Hami Aksoy, the Turkish foreign ministry spokesman, told Al Jazeera.

“All our efforts contributed significantly to the security of Europe. However, our calls were ignored by the EU and member states.”

According to the United Nations refugee agency, Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees worldwide: close to 4.1 million, including 3.7 million Syrians and nearly 400,000 asylum seekers and refugees of other nationalities.

Turkey also controls swaths of land in northern and northwestern Syria following the three operations it carried out in recent years targeting fighters it considers “terrorists”. Ankara has invested in schemes to redevelop these areas to facilitate “voluntary returns” for the refugees it hosts.

“We are the largest refugee-hosting country in the world since 2014,” Aksoy said. “If we take into account of Syrians in northern Syria, we practically assume the burden of more than nine million Syrians.”

‘EU should keep promises’

The EU-Turkey refugee deal, which was criticised by rights groups, came after a massive influx of refugees into the EU in 2015 and early 2016, when more than one million people arrived in the bloc by foot or boat.

In 2019, that number stood at 123,663, including sea arrivals to Italy, Cyprus and Malta, and both sea and land arrivals to Greece and Spain.

The European Commission said last year the number of irregular arrivals of refugees entering Greece had reduced by 97 percent since the implementation of the 2016 deal.

At the heart of the 2016 agreement was the so-called “one-for-one” scheme, whereby Turkey would send a Syrian refugee into the bloc the for each one it accepted back from the Greek islands.

The deal also included promises for loosening visa restrictions for Turkish citizens, the re-energising of Ankara’s EU accession talks and upgrading of the customs union between the two sides. The Turkish government has argued that Brussels has not held its side of the agreement over these issues, even though it has fully complied itself.

The EU also promised to grant six billion euros in two equal tranches to refugee-related projects in Turkey. In a statement to Al Jazeera on Monday, the Turkish foreign ministry said, of the first three billion euro instalment, a total of 2.47 billion euros had been released, with 2.15 billion euros used by organisations tasked with implementing the projects.


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