On March 7, 2016, European Union (EU) member states and Turkish leaders will meet in Brussels to discuss implementation of the EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan on migration and refugees. The EU and Turkey agreed on the plan when they signed a controversial deal in November 2015 under which the EU pledged €3 billion and political concessions to Turkey in exchange for stepped-up efforts to curb migration and refugee flows to Europe.
The deal reflects the EU’s interest in containing the refugee crisis in Europe. In 2015, over one million migrants and asylum seekers reached EU shores; over 800,000 arrived on Greek islands by crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. More than 130,000 people have made the crossing, since the start of 2016, even in the most adverse weather conditions.
Turkey hosts over two million Syrian refugees, and is a major transit country for migrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East and Asia. The EU is eager for these migrants and refugees to remain in Turkey, and to be able to send people who travel irregularly to the EU back to Turkey.
But what will this mean for asylum seekers and refugees? Is Turkey a safe place for them?
What makes a country “safe” for refugees and asylum seekers?
Few argue with the most fundamental idea behind the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees, often called simply the Refugee Convention: people fleeing persecution should be given safe haven. There is significant disagreement, however, over who should provide that protection. The concept of a “safe third country” or “safe country of asylum” refers to the idea that asylum seekers should not be able to go wherever they choose, but should seek protection in the first country they reach where they can find protection.
There are two very basic conditions for what is believed to constitute a safe country of asylum: the country offers a genuine chance for effective protection, and there is no risk that that country will send them back to their country of origin or another country where they might face risks to their lives and liberties – known as the nonrefoulement obligation. Effective protection, in legal terms, means that the country complies with the rights enumerated in the Refugee Convention in practice, respects fundamental human rights, and takes steps to ensure an adequate standard of living and long-term prospects known as “durable solutions”).
EU law allows for the return of asylum seekers to a “safe third country,” but only if all of the following conditions are met: the country respects the principle of nonrefoulement; the country does not remove or return people to countries where they face the risk of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; the asylum seeker would not face threats to their life and liberty; and the asylum seeker may apply for asylum and enjoy all the protections afforded by the Refugee Convention if recognized as a refugee.
This concept is distinct from that of a “safe country of origin.” The idea behind this concept is that certain countries are not experiencing the violence or persecution that would give rise to genuine protection needs. Where permitted by law, and on the basis of adopted lists, asylum adjudicators review applications by nationals of such countries with a presumption that they will be rejected. Often, accelerated procedures are applied, with fewer safeguards and minimal rights to appeal. Countries that use these procedures justify them as a way to expedite applications that would most likely be rejected and avoid or decrease backlogs in asylum systems.
So is Turkey a safe country for refugees and asylum seekers?
Simply put, no. While Turkey ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, the country maintains a geographical limitation that excludes from protection anyone not originally from a European country. That means people fleeing violence or persecution in any non-European country cannot be fully recognized as refugees or granted asylum. Most asylum seekers crossing from Turkey to Greece come from the Middle East and Asia.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), so far this year 90 percent have come from three of the world’s top refugee producing countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Turkey does not provide effective protection to any of these nationals, or indeed to any non-European refugees. In fact, EU law specifically states that a third country can only be considered safe if “it has ratified the provisions of the Geneva Convention without any geographical limitations.” (Directive 2013/32/EU, article 39 2(a)). Turkey is the only country in the world that maintains a geographical limitation to the Refugee Convention.
Syrians enjoy what’s called temporary protection, allowing them to live in the country, but they do not have the full protection afforded by the Refugee Convention. They have faced many barriers in accessing legal employment, and Syrian children face barriers to education and many engage in exploitative underground labor to help support their families. In mid-January, Turkey granted Syrians with temporary protection the right to work, subject to certain conditions and limitations. Most other refugees, including Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians currently have even less legal protection, and without a genuine asylum system, their claims are rarely processed.
A new asylum system created in 2014, in principle provides for examining asylum claims of all non-Syrian applicants. The system, which is not yet fully functional, provides for “conditional refugee status” for non-European refugees for the purposes of resettlement in another country. According to a recent EU report, in 2015 Turkey registered 64,109 asylum requests (most from Iraqi and Afghan nationals). But only 459 refugee status determination interviews were concluded—there is no information about the outcome—while the remaining applications are still pending.
But at least people are physically safe in Turkey, right?
Actually, no. Human Rights Watch has documented push-backs at the Syrian border, and Amnesty International has documented unlawful detention and deportations to Syria and Iraq. People trying to flee to Turkey from Syria have been beaten and shot at as they try to cross the border. Turkey’s borders with Syria are now effectively closed. Tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the surging violence in and around Aleppo are currently stranded at the Turkish-Syrian border, where they face the risk of death and injury. According to the UN, about 45,000 people have fled an offensive by Syrian forces backed by Russian airstrikes in the Aleppo area, and Turkish authorities’ claims that 10,000 refugees have been admitted “in a controlled fashion” could not be independently confirmed. Only Syrians with serious injuries have apparently been allowed to cross into Turkey.
Turkey has repeatedly indicated that it wants to create a “safe zone” at its borders inside northern Syria, to which Syrians could flee. The Turkish government does not explain how the “safe zone” would be secured, and today’s highly volatile situation in Syria and the ongoing violence make it unlikely that such efforts could succeed. Recent history has shown that so-called safe zones like Srebrenica during the Balkan conflict in the 1990s have, in fact, been death traps that have served to contain the flow of displaced people seeking to escape danger rather than protecting civilians from harm.
Reports by Amnesty International and local groups speak of arbitrary arrests of refugees and of ill-treatment in detention in Turkey, plus denial of legal representation or aid, making it impossible for them to challenge their detention and deportation.
Hasn’t Turkey been generous with Syrians?
Compared to most EU member states, Turkey has indeed shown great generosity. As of mid-February, Turkey hosts over two million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world, of whom about 250,000 live in one of the 25 government-run camps. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently said that Turkey has spent about US$10 billion on the Syrian refugees living in the camps since 2011, whereas US$20-25 billion more was spent on those living outside the camps. The government has made clear that it is increasingly struggling to meet the needs of a growing number of refugees in the country.
Syrians living under temporary protection in Turkey officially have access to free health care and education for their children. But despite the government’s laudable efforts to provide for registered Syrians, the situation for many remains dire. Many of the over two million Syrian refugees who live outside the refugee camps in Turkey struggle to get housing, and large numbers live in abject poverty. About 400,000 Syrian children are out of school because they are working to provide for their families, they cannot afford transportation or school supplies, or other reasons such as bullying in some schools. Syrians who move from the city where they are registered to another often lack the necessary information to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and to secure access to medical care and education in their new places of residence.
Non-Syrian refugees have very few social and economic rights in Turkey, and many are forced to turn to exploitative, unsafe, and underpaid informal labor to make ends meet.
EU states should not expect Turkey to shoulder the responsibility and the costs for hosting a growing number of refugees alone, and should not use the country’s generosity as an excuse to turn their back on those who need protection.
The EU is giving Turkey a lot of money to assist refugees, won’t that solve the problem?
The €3 billion aid package promised to Turkey as part of the action plan negotiated with the EU could help alleviate the plight of Syrian refugees in the country if the money is allocated for infrastructure that will help Syrians build a sustainable future in Turkey, such as more schools, medical facilities, and housing. Few details have been published about how Turkey plans to spend the money, and the EU has only recently formalized its plan to pay the agreed amount. There appear to be disputes over who will control the funds and how much oversight the EU will have about how the money is actually spent.
Even if the EU funds are not used directly to bolster border controls and beef up detention facilities, there appear to be at least implicit conditions that the humanitarian and development aid package is predicated on Turkey demonstrating control of its borders and stemming the migration and refugee flow. It is also unclear what will happen once the money runs out. As long as sustainable, long-term solutions that center on refugees’ needs are lacking, throwing money at the problem will not make it go away.
What about plans to resettle refugees from Turkey to the EU?
Increasing refugee resettlement from Turkey is a good idea. Making enough places available could offer a credible alternative to smugglers and deadly boat crossings. Increased EU action could help encourage rich countries elsewhere in the world to pitch in. But the EU record on resettlement has so far been paltry. By mid-January, fewer than 800 people had been brought to Europe under a 2015 commitment by EU governments to resettle 22,500 people from various regions within two years.
The European Commission proposed issued in mid-December 2015 a voluntary humanitarian admission plan for EU member states to bring Syrian refugees from Turkey. Germany has tried to cobble together a group of willing EU countries to participate in robust voluntary resettlement plans. A Dutch politician proposed a plan to return all asylum seekers to Turkey from Greece in exchange for the voluntary resettlement of up to 250,000 refugees from Turkey to the EU per year. Human Rights Watch opposes that proposal because resettlement offers should not require a trade-off against the right to spontaneously seek asylum in Europe, and Turkey cannot be considered a safe third country. Such a trade-off would violate binding EU obligations to guarantee the right to asylum, and risk moving Europe toward an Australia-style system that has led to horrific abuses. None of these proposals has so far borne fruit.
The role of UNHCR is paramount for any resettlement plan. While Turkey allows the UNHCR to operate in the country, refugees whose resettlement applications are processed by the UNHCR do not have the right to work legally in Turkey. Since the number of refugees UNHCR can process depends entirely on the number resettlement countries are willing to take, and since it can take up to several years to get a first appointment at the UNHCR, refugees are left in a desperate limbo.
Won’t stopping the boats help save lives?
The humanitarian argument of saving lives at sea has often served as a fig leaf for self-interested, coercive border enforcement measures. The facts of migration and refugee flows demonstrate that as old routes close down, new routes emerge to respond to people’s needs and determination. Stopping the boats will not stop people trying to reach safety in Europe, but it may well prompt human smugglers to use alternative, and more dangerous, routes to ferry desperate people across the sea and land borders. And given the Turkish security forces’ reputation for using excessive force, there is a risk that Turkey will use abusive tactics to prevent people from reaching its EU neighbors Greece and Bulgaria.
Cracking down on smuggling networks without presenting any viable alternatives, without other possibilities to reach safety and effective protection, might in fact increase the numbers of men, women, and children enduring arduous, potentially fatal, journeys and leave more refugees stuck under harsh conditions in third countries where they are unable to build a better life. There are already concerns, for example, that more people may attempt the far longer and more dangerous crossing from Egypt. Instead of focusing on securing and policing their borders even further, European countries should put more money and effort into sharing the responsibility of managing the refugee flow.
What about Turkey’s human rights situation generally?
The human rights situation in Turkey has deteriorated sharply in recent months. The government and president have cracked down on the media, the judiciary and political opponents, making it nearly impossible to provide media scrutiny of government policies or to hold the country’s leaders to account. Human Rights Watch has documented the dramatic deterioration of freedom of expression in the country, with dozens of journalists jailed and hundreds facing criminal charges, with independent broadcasters shut down or their channels removed from the main satellite distribution platforms, and with thousands of social media users facing court cases for posting content the government or president did not like.
Against the backdrop of the conflict in Syria, violence in the predominantly Kurdish southeast has escalated since a ceasefire between the Turkish government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) broke down in July 2015. Consecutive blanket curfews were imposed on several towns and districts in the region where Kurdish activists announced administrative autonomy. With the conflict moving from the mountains into urban centers, about 200 civilians have been killed during security operations and in violent clashes between security forces and armed Kurdish militants. Revived EU membership talks with Turkey—part of the recent deal—could give European leaders the opportunity to press Turkey on its domestic rights record at a time when there are concerns about Turkey’s long-term internal stability. The EU’s interest in Turkey’s cooperation in stemming the flow of refugees should not overshadow these concerns.
What should the EU do?
The EU and all its member states should demonstrate global leadership, collective action, and solidarity with refugees. This entails adopting a coordinated approach based on access to protection and respect for human rights, and policies that create credible, viable alternatives to hazardous routes to reach Europe. Improving capacity in countries like Turkey for effective protection to refugees is a laudable long-term goal. It is no substitute for full compliance by EU governments with their own obligations under international and EU law, or for sharing responsibility for fairly processing and humanely hosting asylum seekers in the midst of a global displacement crisis.
The EU and its member states should expand legal and safe pathways into the EU, including through vastly increased and effective resettlement programs, facilitated family reunification, and humanitarian and other visas. All EU member states should ensure access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, including at borders, and work collectively to ensure equitable distribution among EU member states of responsibility for processing new arrivals. This would require all EU member states to swiftly implement their obligations to make places available for asylum seekers from Greece and Italy under the relocation plan agreed in September 2015.