Assessing the EU-Turkey Migrant Crisis Deal

Jacob Greenberg
Vol. 37 Associate Editor

At the stroke of midnight on March 20, 2016, Greece began the process of designating all migrants arriving by boat for return to Turkey.[1] This major milestone in the refugee/migrant crisis was the product of deal struck by the European Union (EU) and Turkey just days earlier. Turkey agreed to receive and process all migrants arriving by boat in Greece. It will also sort those refugees fleeing war from other migrants.[2] The EU, in addition to paying to send the migrants to Turkey, has agreed to several other concessions. For each migrant the EU sends Turkey, the EU will resettle one vetted Syrian refugee. The EU will also send Turkey 3 billion Euros on top of the 3 billion it has already pledged to help it deal with the crisis, grant visa-free travel for Turks in Europe, and accelerate negotiations over Turkish accession to the EU.[3]  Some analysts like The Economist are cautiously optimistic. Of the estimated 1.2 million migrants who entered Europe in the past year, most came through Turkey.[4] This plan both standardizes a system that badly needs organization and helps mitigate the incentive to illegally migrate to Europe.[5] Potential migrants will presumably be less willing to risk the journey if they will be sent back upon arrival. The sea route itself is especially risky.[6] Just this year, an estimated 467 migrants have lost their lives traveling to Europe from overseas.[7] This particular route has also proven especially prone to human trafficking and smuggling.[8] Still, many have questioned the viability of the deal. The EU promised to settle up to a total of 72,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey.[9] This number seems dubious since the EU has been conspicuously unable to agree to any comprehensive refugee distribution plan.[10] So far, it has only agreed to settle 20,000 refugees.[11] Commenters are even more skeptical of the other EU concessions. The EU agreed to grant Turks visa-free access to the Schengen zone by June.[12] Turkey has not met many of the 72 preconditions for such access, like requiring biometric passports. [13] Moreover, while it may limit immigration from the Middle East, this concession will only raise Turkish immigration into Europe, which many countries oppose.[14] Most surprising is the requirement that the EU fast-track Turkey’s bid to join the body. Turkey-EU accession talks have been ongoing since 1987 and have made little progress.[15] Turkey does not meet the EU’s democratic standards required to even begin negotiations, and has only become more autocratic under its current president Recep Ordogan.[16] Even as the talks were taking place, Erdogan seized a newspaper critical of his regime and replaced its journalists with others loyal to his government.[17] The EU noticeably turned a blind eye to this development.[18] Analysts have also raised longer-term concerns. Stephen Erlanger of The New York Times compared Erdogan to former Libyan dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, who periodically allowed migrants through Libya’s borders to exact concessions from European leaders, in exchange for closing the borders again.[19] There is little stopping Erdogan from undertaking a similar scheme, and as the Turkish accession and Schengen access provisions indicate, he may desire more than simply monetary concessions. Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Center for International Political Economy, warns European reliance on Turkey could lead to a situation where Europe cannot oppose Turkish actions in Syria and against the Kurds.[20] Meanwhile, multiple human rights groups have also condemned the plan, calling it contrary to international law. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed doubt that Turkey could meet the requirements of a safe state to which refugees could be sent.[21] These international standards are strict, requiring that the asylum-seekers’ applications are processed lawfully.[22] The approved asylum-seekers must also be given full access to welfare and bear no risk of being sent back to their countries of origin.[23] Amnesty International expressed the same concern in stronger terms, declaring, “Turkey is not a safe country for refugees and migrants, and any return process predicated on it being so will be flawed, illegal and immoral.”[24] Human Rights Watch, another NGO, also raised concerns about Turkey’s status as a safe country. Turkey does not fully comply with the 1951 Refugee Convention because it allows only European refugees to claim refugee status.[25] It is the only country in the world with a geographical reservation to the 1951 Refugee Convention.[26] The lynchpin in the whole scenario, of course, is Turkey. It will have to move quickly to meet the requirements for visa-free travel in the Schengen zone, and at least in the short term, it will have stem the flow of migrants and raise its refugee standards to ensure Europe does not back away. Still, it holds virtually all the cards. In the end, it will be up to Turkey whether it uses the deal to liberalize and democratize sufficiently to fulfill its goal of joining the EU, or whether it uses it cynically to compel concessions from a desperate Europe.

  [1] Marina Rafenberg & Catherine Boitard, Migrants still arriving as EU-Turkey deal enters force, Yahoo! News (Mar. 20, 2016), [2] James Kanter, Turkey Places Conditions on E.U. for Migrant Help, N.Y. Times (Mar. 7, 2016), [3] Id. [4] A messy but necessary deal, The Economist (Mar. 12, 2016), [5] Id. [6] Nick Cumming-Bruce, Melissa Eddy & James Kanter, How Europe’s Deal With Turkey Aims to Resolve the Migrant Crisis, N.Y. Times (Mar. 8, 2016), [7] Mediterranean Migrant Arrivals in 2016 Near 155,000; Deaths Reach 467, Int’l Org. for Migration (Mar. 18, 2016), [8] Cumming-Bruce, et al., supra note 6. [9] Lorne Cook and Raf Casert, EU agrees stance on Turkey migrant deal, Wash. Post (Mar. 17, 2016), [10] A messy but necessary deal, supra note 4. [11] Cumming-Bruce, et al., supra note 6. [12] Migrant crisis: EU-Turkey deal comes into effect, BBC News (Mar. 20, 2016), [13] A messy but necessary deal, supra note 4. [14] Id. [15] Steven Erlanger, Facing Migrant Crisis, E.U. Makes a Dubious Deal With Turkey, N.Y. Times (Mar. 10, 2016), [16] A messy but necessary deal, supra note 4. [17] Erlanger, supra note 15. [18] Cumming-Bruce, et al., supra note 6. [19] Erlanger, supra note 15. [20] Kanter, supra note 2. [21] UNHCR expresses concern over EU-Turkey plan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Mar. 11, 2016), [22] Id. [23] Id. [24] Press Release, Amnesty Int’l, EU-Turkey refugee deal a historic blow to rights, (Mar. 18, 2016), [25] EU/Turkey: Mass, Fast-Track Returns Threaten Rights, Hum. Rts. Watch (Mar. 8, 2016), [26] Id.