People like Maleka, a 26-years-old pregnant refugee, who out of despair tried to set herself on fire, are paying the price for a decision taken 5 years ago by the EU officials. Millions are paying while the EU is avoiding to fulfil its responsibility
Exactly 5 years ago, on 18th March 2016, the European Union and Turkey signed a deal, according to which the people, whose asylum claims were rejected in the EU, could be deported to Turkey. For each person deported the EU was to accept one refugee registered in Turkey. The Turkish government has also committed to stop people trying to enter the EU in exchange for 6-billion-euro worth of funds to help Syrian refugees in Turkey.
According to InfoMigrants, 28 621 Syrian refugees have been relocated to the EU since the deal was signed. At the same time the number of people crossing the borders between Turkey and the EU has plummeted from nearly one million in 2015 to about 10 000 in 2020.
The deal was hailed as “the solution of the European migration crisis” by the leaders of the EU member states. However, for the NGOs and activists who are engaged in helping the migrants and protecting their rights, as well as for the refugees themselves, it is clear that the deal has hardly solved anything. At best it has partially relocated the problem outside of the EU borders.
The detained on the Greek islands
Despite reducing the numbers of refugees arriving to Greece, the situation on the islands near to the Turkish coast remains appalling. After signing the deal with Turkey people arriving in Greece across the Aegean Sea were compelled to go through a lengthy asylum claim procedure in the camps on the islands. It was meant to make the deportation of the people, whose asylum claims were rejected, easier.
This decision, taken in disregard of protests of the local communities, refugees and NGOs, led to overcrowding the camps on the islands. Processing the asylum claims can go on for years and the migrants are compelled to wait for it living in inhumane conditions. When in September 2020, Moria camp on Lesbos island burnt down, 13 000 people were left homeless. A new camp was built in a place of a former military firing-range, where soil is contaminated with lead and unexploded ammunition still can be found.
A story of Maleka, a 26-years-old Afghan woman is a testimony to the conditions in this camp and the psychological burden created by the situation on the islands. Despite being granted a refugee status, she was forbidden from leaving the island due to the state of her health and her advanced pregnancy. Maleka, devastated by this decision, set herself on fire.
The Greek authorities on the island did not offer any help to the woman who was pushed to attempt a suicide. Instead, she was accused of arson. It seems that the representatives of the government are trying to avoid admitting their responsibility for the conditions in the camps through criminalising the refugees detained on the islands.
Turkey is not a safe country for refugees
The deal with Turkey also violates the 1951 Refugee Convention, that forbids deporting asylum seekers to countries, where they are not safe. However, it is widely known, that the Turkish state fails to respect the rights of its own citizens, particularly the Kurdish and LGBT+ minorities. It is hard to expect that in this situation Turkey will strive to protect asylum seekers, especially those who themselves belong to the minorities oppressed in this country.
Turkey is also responsible for forcible deportations of Syrian refugees. One of the people deported to Syria told Amnesty International: “I said that I will not return to Syria because it is not safe, and I’m staying legally in Turkey. I asked if I had committed any offense, but they didn’t answer. I felt completely destroyed and alone.”
Turkey hosts about 4 million refugees, more than any other country in the world. Among them only Syrians (3.6 million) were granted a temporary legal status which does not protect them from deportation. The rest live in even greater precarity.
Hostages of a political conflict
The EU-Turkey deal did not take into account voices of the people who have been most affected by its implementation – the asylum seekers. Depriving the refugees of political subjectivity puts them in a role of pawns in the political game between Brussels and Ankara, what could have been witnessed at the turn of February and March of 2020. Faced with the increasing severity of war operations in north-west Syria, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to break the deal with the EU and allowed refugees to cross the borders into Greece and Bulgaria.
The aim was to put pressure on the EU member states and force them to react to the humanitarian crisis at the Syrian-Turkish border. The answer of the EU leaders showed how the notion of ‘solidarity’ has been spoiled in Europe. Support was offered not to the refugees, but to the Greek and Bulgarian governments that have radically intensified their border protection measures. The refugees were stranded in no man’s land on the EU-Turkey border and their fates did not move virtually anybody’s feelings. That situation has shown that the EU-Turkey deal has placed the asylum seekers in a role of president Erdogan’s hostages, whom he can exploit in his disputes with the EU member states.
Instead of solving the crisis, avoiding responsibility
Even if signing the deal with Turkey has partially relieved the EU from its duty to protect the asylum seekers, it cannot be said that any problem has been solved. Transferring the responsibility for ensuring refugees’ safety to the Turkish state has decreased chances of asylum seekers to get out of their crisis. At the same time, it has given the Turkish authoritarian regime a tool to put pressure on the EU member states, at the expense of further repressions of migrants.
By stopping asylum seekers in Turkey and other neighbouring states, the EU tries to sustain an illusion that migration ceased to be Europe’s concern. It is an extremely short-sighted strategy, that ignores participation of the EU member states in the global conflicts and their responsibility for creating and sustaining the climate crisis, that has already forced many to migrate.
Five years after the EU-Turkey deal, Amnesty international warns the EU against the continuation of this policy and signing similar agreements with other countries:
“The EU-Turkey deal has been an abject failure. The EU and its member states have failed to take responsibility for people seeking safety in Europe. They have failed to respect the rights of refugees and migrants and failed to provide alternative safe passage to Europe for people seeking protection. Ministers must prioritize viable solutions that would save lives. Shameful policies such as the EU-Turkey deal and the EU’s reckless cooperation with Libya cannot be the blueprint for future migration deals with other countries.” – says Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s EU office.
Supporters of the deal with Turkey argued, that signing it was necessary to avoid the crisis, resulting from a difficulty to integrate all who seek asylum in Europe. However, if their concerns are righteous, it cannot be expected from Turkey that it will manage integration of refugees, who account for 4,3% of its population (in the EU it is barely 0,6%).
Whether we believe that migration to the EU should be curbed, or not, we cannot agree on the EU institutions involvement in violating human rights and creating situations that put human lives at risk. Before we start a discussion on eventual problems with integrating the immigrants, we must mobilise to end the European crisis of solidarity. The crisis caused by policies of shifting the responsibility to protect asylum seekers to other countries.
Jakub Bieniasz – studying Arabic studies. Activist, vegetarian and bicyclist. Member of the Salam Lab Team.