A challenging issue: The EU-Turkey refugee agreement
March 18 marks the first anniversary of the highly controversial refugee agreement signed between the European Union and Turkey. The aim was to end disorganized, chaotic and irregular migration flows by implementing measures to create safe and legal pathways toward Europe from Turkey. But what has really happened until now? Undoubtedly, the EU-Turkey agreement has significantly slowed refugees’ flow to the Greek islands. Still, it would be far-fetched to claim that it effectively and fully stopped them. In fact, the agreement has turned the Greek islands into an “open-air prison” where more than 15,000 people have become stuck and immovable.
Despite the agreement, the Greek islands still count many refugee arrivals on a daily basis. Since the beginning of 2017 alone, the authorities have registered almost 2,000 refugees on several islands. However, neither the Greek government nor the EU seem to be capable or willing to provide a minimum level of infrastructure for the refugees promised.
In April 2016, the EU confirmed that the procedures for refugees on the Greek islands would be completed within a few days. According to the plan, the Greek authorities would decide on asylum applications together with European officials as part of a fast-track procedure, with applicants who were eligible for refugee protection to be dispersed within EU countries and the remainder to be returned to Turkey. However, the process has been a shambles, and Greek authorities are overwhelmed by the situation. One year after the completion of the deal, thousands of refugees in Greece are still waiting to be registered. Greek courts refuse to recognize Turkey as a “safe third country” even though that was required by the EU. For this reason, just 745 migrants and refugees were returned to Turkey between March and December 2016. So far, 2,761 Syrian refugees have been resettled from Turkey in Europe. But according to a previous announcement by the EU in 2016, 18,000 genuine refugees were supposedly given asylum and resettled in other European countries. The increased number of migrants arriving on the Greek islands is putting pressure on overcrowded camps.
According to Save the Children, the camps had already doubled in number and become overcrowded by the autumn of 2016. Among the 15,000 refugees held on the islands of Kos, Samos, Lesbos and Chios in closed camps, around 5,000 are children. For the most part, children face depressing and unsafe conditions and are deprived of education opportunities. On the other hand, the escalation of the refugee crisis on the islands could further aggravate economic problems for Greece, whose economy has just started to recover from the debt crisis. The tourism sector on the islands of Samos, Kos, and Lesbos, which are close to Turkey, are especially suffering from the situation. In addition, that could create an environment prone to accelerating social unrest. Needless to say, Greece by itself is not able to sustain all of this with its present resources.
Will the Turkey-EU agreement collapse?
Currently, the situation of the agreement is fragile and it might collapse any time due to the tension between the two sides. Hence, the EU should take a comprehensive approach to tackling the crisis on the Greek islands and eventually the mainland if there are renewed refugee flows in the event that the agreement collapses. Greece urgently needs to increase the capacity of its asylum service in order to process the claims of the current refugees and migrants on the islands. Such an increase could also contribute to the improvement of the horrifying living conditions on the islands. Furthermore, the EU requires a distribution scheme within the member states to act in solidarity with Greece and Italy and share their economic and humanitarian burdens. Thus, a potential racist backlash against the refugees and a dramatic rise in right-wing populism, both of which threaten Europe’s core values, could be averted.