The European Union’s current plan to stop the irregular flow of migrants and refugees to Europe, which came into effect on March 20, involves an agreement with Turkey to take back all people arriving on the Greek islands and all those intercepted in Turkish waters. In announcing the agreement, E.U. leaders have welcomed NATO's engagement in patrolling the Aegean Sea. As NATO includes non-E.U. members, including the United States and Turkey, it is able to operate in Turkish waters, unlike Frontex, the E.U. border agency.
Even before NATO’s engagement thrust the United States into the heart of efforts to stem the refugee flow, Washington appeared to share responsibility – through its own policies at home and by directly encouraging Turkey – in blocking Syrian civilians' fair access to asylum.
In his State of the Union address in January, President Barack Obama did indeed say, “We're working with Turkey to seal its border with Syria." But his speech remained conspicuously unclear on whether he was solely referring to preventing Islamist extremists and arms from going into Syria, or also calling for a restriction on asylum seekers from Syria. In either case, by encouraging Turkey to seal its border, the U.S. is inevitably aiding the country in keeping out desperate civilians fleeing conflict.
If, in fact, the United States is actively helping Turkey prevent Syrian asylum seekers from escaping threats to their lives, it would be a serious flouting of the principle that lies at the foundation of refugee protection: non-refoulement. This principle of international law bars any country from returning a refugee to a place where his or her life or freedom would be threatened. This includes rejecting asylum seekers at a country’s borders if they are escaping serious threats to their lives and safety. Tens of thousands of Syrians who have fled the assault on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo are still massed near the towns of Azaz and Afrin along the Turkish border, due to being barred from entering Turkey.
On the other hand, are Turkish border control measures comparable to U.S. policies, as claimed by the governor of Kilis? There are significant differences. First, while respect for human rights in Mexico is far from perfect, Mexico is not Syria. When the U.S. returns a Mexican to Mexico, it does not presumptively expose that person to the level of risk a Syrian would face after being rejected at the Turkish border. The types of threats that civilians in Syria and Mexico face are not on the same level.
However, dig a little deeper into U.S. policy since mid-2014 relating to Central Americans fleeing direct threats to their lives, and the distinctions become hazier. So the more appropriate analogy for E.U. efforts to get Turkey to stem the flow of Syrians and Iraqis is U.S. pressure and incentives for Mexico to stem the flow of Central Americans.
Akin to the E.U.’s latest, tentative pledge of 6 billion euros to Turkey to stem migration flows to the E.U., President Obama sent the U.S. Congress an emergency request for $3.7 billion to address what he called an “urgent humanitarian situation” on the U.S. southwestern border after 162,700 non-Mexican migrants had been apprehended there during the previous six-month period. On the same day that Obama made his request to Congress, Mexican president Pena Nieto issued a decree announcing Programa Frontera Sur(“Southern Border Program”) to boost enforcement efforts in southern Mexico.
A year later, the number of apprehensions at the U.S.–Mexico border had fallen to 70,400, a 57 percent drop compared to the same months the previous year. During that same period, apprehensions of Central American migrants in Mexico rose by 75 percent, from about 53,000 to nearly 93,000. Mexico’s National Immigration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migracion, INM) reported a 79 percent increase in the number of Central Americans deported from Mexico in the first four months of 2015.
Also, for Central Americans who manage to reach the U.S. border, a Human Rights Watch examination showed that some have not been given a fair chance to present asylum claims. We identified Hondurans fearing for their lives who had been deported from the United States after U.S. border officials had failed to identify them as asylum seekers. We also obtained data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection which showed that at least 80 percent of Hondurans were placed in fast-track expedited removal in 2011 and 2012 but that only 1.9 percent were flagged for credible fear screening. A recent investigation by the Guardian reported that some have been killed after the U.S. deported them. The scale of the pushbacks at Turkey’s border with Syria is far larger, but the life-and-death stakes for particular individuals is often the same.
The United States sets a poor example for the E.U. when it uses Mexico as a buffer state to keep out Central Americans and to Turkey when it fails to protect asylum seekers arriving at its doorstep.
The Turkish governor, of course, overstates his case when he points to U.S. border controls to justify the brute force that Turkish border guards are using to keep asylum seekers out. The scale and abruptness of Turkey’s decision in early 2015 to end what until then had been a generous open-door policy is not the same. For the country to close its borders to all but a handful of Syrians with serious injuries is a drastic turn in policy that will entrap a large number of civilians inside conflict zones.
Neither the United States nor Turkey should make facile comparisons about the situations at their respective southern borders. While the United States should be aware of the enormous refugee burden that Turkey bears, with more than 2 million refugees living in the country, it should not encourage or assist Turkish border closures that put lives at risk. Nor should it blindly participate in a NATO plan that involves interdicting and returning asylum seekers to Turkey.
The U.S. should put its own house in order and commit to reforms that protect all of the world’s refugees – be they Honduran or Syrian. It should revamp its own border policies to ensure that anyone who fears for their safety upon being sent back to their country will have a fair screening procedure. The current administration and future ones should revive historical U.S. leadership on refugee resettlement by fulfilling Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson’s January 4 promise to expand refugee resettlement from Central America beyond the paltry 32 Central American refugees admitted so far this fiscal year.
Finally, the U.S. should not only provide significant financial assistance to Turkey (as well as Lebanon and Jordan) for effective reception, screening and assistance, but also make more generous refugee resettlement offers. The U.S. has resettled only 955 Syrian refugees this fiscal year. Instead of providing support for the blocking of refugees and asylum seekers, it should improve the asylum process, while working collaboratively to bring an end to the violence and human rights abuse at the root of forced displacement.