Meanwhile, more than ten thousand refugees have been stranded at the border between Greece and Turkey. They don’t want to return to Turkey nor are they permitted to, but they are not allowed to enter Greece or the European Union, either. Felix Schmidt, of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s office in Istanbul and Ulrich Storck, of the FES’s office in Athens provide updated information on the current situation in Turkey and Greece.
FES: How does the situation at the EU’s external border look from the Turkish side’s point of view?
Felix Schmidt: The humanitarian situation at the border is desperate for those seeking refuge. Now that the Turkish side has dispatched around 1000 security personnel to the land border, the refugees are caught in a no-man’s land between the Turkish, Greek, and Bulgarian frontiers. They are provisionally being supplied by the Red Crescent with the barest necessities, but sanitary and living conditions are catastrophic, although not quite as tragic as they are at the Syrian-Turkish border near Idlib. According to some media reports, among the refugee stuck at the EU border, only a minority are Syrians. The majority are said to come from Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, as well as some African countries. Supposedly, there are even refugees from Turkey itself.
What factors have brought us to the point at which, as Turkish President Erdogan put it, he has “opened the gates?”
Turkey, by now with some 4 million refugees, is already sheltering far more of them than the entire EU. At the moment, there are around another million more refugees at Turkey’s border with Syria surging into the country. If the truce in Idlib negotiated between presidents Putin and Erdogan does not hold, the pressure will increase to let these desperate people enter Turkey. At the same time, the economic situation in the country is deteriorating. Youth unemployment currently stands at about 25%, and the refugees compete with Turkish job-seekers on the labor market.
President Erdogan repeatedly has emphasized that Turkey is no longer in a position to bear these additional burdens. From the Turkish point of view, the EU has only partially fulfilled its obligations to Turkey under their Refugee Agreement. Of the promised six billion euros, only about 3.6 billion have flowed into Turkey. Besides, as far as the other parts of the deal are concerned, such as abolishing visa requirement, resuming negotiations on joining the EU, and modernizing the customs union, there has been no progress at all. Each side accuses the other of being to blame for the impasse.
One can interpret the “opening of the gates” as a distress signal from Turkey to the EU, asking the latter to get more deeply engaged in the Syrian question as well as the intake of refugees. This wake-up call apparently has worked, at least in some respects.
Many people in Europe charge Erdogan with playing a cynical game: misusing the refuges as a means of pressuring the EU. Even if the charge is not without some justification, the EU also has to ask itself whether its inactivity is even more cynical. Up until now, Turkey has borne the main burden, and the EU has shirked its responsibility in comfort. As early as 2015 it was evident that the problems were not being solved by the Refugee Agreement.
How much support do you think the Turkish government has for these steps among its own population?
By this time, due to the large number of refugees in the country, the mood has changed. The “culture of welcome,” which even the government originally propagandized, has given way to increasing antipathy toward those who have fled to Turkey. Also, clashes between Turks and refugees have broken out repeatedly. Yet given that the overall situation in the country has gotten so much worse, popular tolerance and hospitality levels still are much higher than in the EU. Because the country has so many problems, the government’s measures have met with broad acceptance.
What demands has the Turkish government made to the European Union? In your estimation, how much responsibility does Germany bear for finding a solution to the current crisis?
First and foremost, the Turkish government is asking for more solidarity from the Europeans and greater understanding for the situation in the country. They also want to see a security zone in the Idlib region. One urgent agenda item would be an update of the Refugee Agreement to ease pressure on the borders. Also, adjustments must be made in response to the changed situation in Syria. Further financial support should be mobilized, and funds should be made available in less bureaucratic ways. When the first treaty was negotiated, there was justified fear that transferring the money directly into the Turkish state budget posed the risk that it could be used for purposes other than those intended, e.g., that the funds could be spent on weapons rather than on refugee aid. While it is true that the Turkish state is no longer governed by the rule of law, the country definitely still has a smoothly-functioning administration. It would be in a position to spend the money in accord with its original purpose. Thus, some thought should be given to cooperating more closely with state actors such as the Turkish Emergency Service. Finally, Europe ought to be more active in coming to grips with the drama in Syria and stop acting like an uninvolved bystander on the margin, constantly expressing “deep concern” about the situation. The time has come to intervene in more robust ways. The cause of the dramatic events unfolding now is to be found primarily in Damascus, but also in Tehran and Moscow, and much less so in Ankara. That is the place to start. Attacks on Turkey’s behavior don’t do much to solve the problem. Germany should and must assume a leadership role in this matter. Doing so is in our own best interest.
FES: How does the situation at the EU’s external border look from the point of view of the Greek government?
Ulrich Storck: Since the Turkish government announced that it was “opening the gate” at the end of February and began to look the other way when people headed for the border, Greece has felt “under attack” by its neighbor. People talk about a “hybrid war” by Turkey against Greece, in which refugees are misused as weapons. The initial reaction was to close the border and keep it sealed with the help of additional police and military units. Migrants who do manage to get across are detained or immediately returned. Greece’s current emergency legislation—which is impermissible under international law, because it suspends asylum proceedings—allows the Greek authorities to take into custody migrants arriving by land or water and send them back without registration or due process of law.
At the same time, a propaganda battle has broken out at the borders, both the land border at the Evros River and the Greek islands close to Turkey. Social media present images that supposedly document mistreatment at the hands of the Greek police. There is even talk of deaths, although none has been confirmed so far. But if détente does not come fairly quickly, it seems only a matter of time before the first victims turn up and usher in the next phase of escalation. It is still difficult to verify information because both the Turkish and Greek sides are interfering with journalists’ work.
We can only hope that a compromise will be reached before too long with the Turkish leadership to relieve pressure on the EU’s external border. Even if Frontex deploys a few additional boats and personnel, as it has promised, the maritime borders can hardly be kept sealed on a permanent basis without cooperation from Turkey.
How is the Greek public reacting to the events?
In a way that transcends political outlooks and party boundaries, the country has closed ranks behind the government’s hard line. For months, reports about the Turkish leadership’s aggressions and provocations have dominated the news. Not only continuing violations of Greek air space by this NATO partner, but even its territorial claims to Greek islands and their potentially resource-rich continental shelf stoke the bilateral feuds. According to opinion surveys, over half of the Greek population expect an armed conflict with their neighbor in the course of this year, and that was even before the current crisis erupted.
Regrettably, this situation, advertised as a “case of national defense,” offers nationalistic and extreme right-wing groups welcome leeway for agitation. Nationalistic, xenophobic, and right-wing extremist rhetoric is reproduced on a grand scale by social media around the country, and it does influence public opinion. In the affected border regions, self-proclaimed “citizens’ militias” are forming with the declared aim of “defending” the border and the islands against the refugees. Of course, right-wing extremist groups and networks already had formed well before the current crisis, yet now they are emerging from the shadows and fanning the flames of an already overheated situation even more. In this regard, they find an echo in the right-wing nationalist networks all over Europe, including Germany and especially the AfD.
Do you think that this development could have been foreseen?
Although the EU-Turkey Agreement of 2015 created a much-needed instrument to stop the flow of large numbers of refugees and migrants into Europe, especially Germany, its weak points readily became apparent. On the one hand, it required that the Turkish leadership be willing to cooperate, but on the other, it counted on mechanisms of repatriation from the Greek side that the asylum authorities there were never in a position to carry out—or not willing to do so, when the Syriza government was in power. While the EU half-heartedly tried to build up Greece’s administrative capacities and wore itself out in struggles with a bureaucracy that was already inefficient, everyone persisted in turning a blind eye to Erdogan. The “open the gate” policy on the part of a country that in the interim has had to care for nearly 4 million refugees had been announced more than once. Europe both made itself vulnerable to extortion and simultaneously denied Turkey any further concessions or aid. Thus, it was only a matter of time before a crisis such as the present one would break out. The root of the problem clearly lies in the wars in Syria—and in the fact that Europe’s decision to ignore what was happening did not contribute to any solution, but instead opened the way for escalation.
What do the Greek people and their government expect now from the European Union? How much responsibility do you think Germany should assume for finding a solution to the current crisis?
First and foremost, people expect European solidarity and a clear admission that we are facing a European crisis, not just a Greek one. For a long time, Greece, as a front-line country and gatekeeper of the EU, has felt abandoned in its efforts to deal with the migration pressure that has been building mightily over the past few months, especially in the hotspots of the Aegean. The visit of the European presidential trio was a grand gesture that did show solidarity, especially because it included considerable, newly-pledged financial support. Yet even in the best case these gestures will be little more than stopgap solutions.
Anyone who really wants to find a solution has to dare to tackle Europe’s asylum policy. The Greeks know very well that their country is not the final destination of the migrants. Without exception, all migrants want to travel farther north to their dream destination: Germany. For quite some time the Greek government has reminded everyone that the burden of taking in refugees should be distributed across the EU, and that the Dublin Accord needs to be reformed. Since Germany is the principal destination country, people expect that it ought to lobby more vigorously for a European solution of this kind. One way of accomplishing that goal would be to take advantage of the ongoing EU budgetary negotiations to make the allocation of structural funds, especially to the countries of Eastern Europe, contingent on their willingness to cooperate and show solidarity on the issue of distributing refugees within the Union. Germany is often accused of being too close to the Turkish leadership. Because Merkel was the principal sponsor of the 2015 Agreement, she should bear personal responsibility for it, including for its possible failure.
If one wants to address the causes of the crisis and not just its symptoms, one has to deal with Syria. For too long, Europe and Germany have stood helplessly on the sidelines of events there, refusing to get involved or bring any influence to bear on the crisis. People expect Europe and especially its protagonists, Merkel and Macron, to engage in negotiations with Putin, forcefully emphasizing certain goals: not merely facilitating an armistice, but also monitoring it and arranging for safe zones, thereby playing an active part in ending the flight and misery of the people in the region. Right now, Macron and France are perceived as Greece’s closest international friend. But also, because she is trusted by both sides, Angela Merkel is especially well-suited to play the role of broker in negotiations between Erdogan and Putin for peace in Syria.
Events, projects, analyzes and background information: