Sitting at the crossroads of two great continents and civilisations, Turkey has long been central to the stability, prosperity and focus of nearly one third of the globe. Although nowadays, it is no longer one of the world’s superpowers, it has recently been thrust back into the centre of the political limelight by the biggest refugee crisis to engulf Europe since the Second World War. Its unique geographical and cultural positioning means that despite decades of relatively frosty relations with its European neighbours, Turkey has made a deal with the EU. But what does this really mean for us?

The essence of the deal is that Turkey will take all migrants who have entered Greece illegally via the Aegean Sea. In return, the EU will take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and then give it more money, early visa-free travel and faster progress in EU membership talks.

Now, a month after the deal was made, this article asks the following questions?

  • Has the deal reduced the number of migrants entering the EU via Greece?
  • Is the deal legal?
  • How has the deal affected refugees?

Has the deal reduced the number of migrants entering the EU via Greece?

New figures released from the Turkish Foreign Ministry show a significant decline in migrants trying to enter Greece by sea, from thousands a day to mere dozens.

The Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister informed the Turkish Parliament on 13th April 2016 that in October 2015, an average of more than 6,000 people per day crossed to the Greek Islands from Turkey. In April, the numbers dropped to as low as 26 per day, and on 10th April, no one attempted the crossing.

According to these figures, the agreement between the EU and Turkey has been a success.

And not just for the Governments.

It must be remembered that crossing the Aegean Sea may be the shortest way to get to Europe, but it is also the deadliest by far. Most migrants make the perilous journey in overcrowded, un-seaworthy boats with either no life-jackets or poorly made ones which cannot keep them afloat if the boat capsizes.

Which tragically, many do: In 2015 alone at least 3,692 migrants died at sea, many of them children.

The fact that the EU/Turkey deal has deterred people smugglers taking vulnerable and desperate people on such a dangerous journey, has undoubtedly saved lives. The latest figures show that Turkish law enforcement captured more than 1,500 smuggling suspects in 2015; 400 suspects have been arrested so far in 2016. Turkey’s enforcement of the EU deal and the securing of its maritime borders has been a great success so far, but can it continue?

Is the deal between the EU and Turkey Legal?

When the deal between the EU and Turkey was signed last month, many doubted whether or not it was legal under international law.

One of the major objections to the agreement is that it involves a ‘blanket return’ of all asylum seekers who enter Greece via Turkey. However, under the terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its own legislation, the EU has an obligation to assess the rights of refugees on an individual basis.

To get around this, the EU argued in a memo entitled, ‘Next Operational Steps in EU-Turkey Cooperation in the Field of Migration’, that if Turkey can be deemed to be a ‘safe third-country for refugees’ then the need for individual assessment of every asylum claim does not apply.

According to human rights groups such as Amnesty International, this was clearly the EU interpreting the law in such a way to make it fit in with the EU/Turkey deal, rather than adapting the deal so that it could fit in with the law. This type of political meandering can leave a somewhat unpleasant taste in one’s mouth.

And is Turkey even a safe third-country? No one can deny that Turkey has done more than any other country in providing asylum to Syrian refugees, as well as providing a safe haven for desperate asylum seekers from war torn Afghanistan and Iraq. More than two million Syrians have been granted the status of protected people in Turkey.

However, Turkey does not allow refugees to work, which is a right enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, and there have been accusations of the Turkish Government returning refugees to Syria, a clear breach of the non-refoulement principle of international law.

The Dublin Regulation must also be considered. Under this Regulation, Greece should consider each refugee individually and decide which member state should process the asylum application. Particular attention should be paid to the protection of the family unit and the best interests of any children. For example, if an asylum seeker is an unaccompanied child who has a family member who has a legal right to reside in another member state, the child should be sent to that member state as long as it is in their best interests to do so.

Can Greece, with its broken economy, process large amounts of asylum seekers in a short amount of time effectively? A UN official has already come forward to admit that some of the first batch of 202 migrants sent back to Turkey were removed by mistake.

How has the deal affected refugees?

Greece clearly cannot offer the many migrants that have fled war-torn countries in the Middle-East the physical, psychological and practical assistance they need and conditions seem to be getting worse.

Over 6,300 refugees and migrants have arrived on the Greek islands since the EU-Turkey deal came into effect on 20th March and are being arbitrarily held in detention camps in questionable conditions.

A day after the first migrants were sent back to Turkey from the islands of Lesbos and Chios, the deportations process was suspended (the suspension was subsequently lifted).

Greece is struggling to handle the increased requests for asylum following the EU-Turkey deal. Forty percent of the 57,000 arrivals in Greece in February 2016 were children, as are nearly half of all Syrian asylum seekers. Establishing whether a decision involving a migrant child is ‘in their best interests’ in accordance with the Dublin Regulation is a time-consuming process, requiring specialist case-workers who are experienced and trained in dealing with children who have suffered trauma. Guardians identifying and advocating the child’s rights, interests, and protection needs are a core part of the system; however, the guardianship system for migrant children in Greece is at breaking point.

Adults too are suffering from disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and shock. They now face the prospect, after risking everything in order to flee to safety and gain the chance of a new life, of being sent back to Turkey, even if they are genuine asylum seekers.

In summary

One month into the Turkey-EU migrant deal it is clear that the refugees are paying the price for EU leaders being unwilling or unable to come up with a solution to provide safety, refuge and opportunities to people who have had no choice but to flee their homes, family and professions to seek shelter in another continent. Turkey may provide safety, but it does not provide opportunities and employment that these displaced people seek. One cannot blame them for preferring to risk reaching a Europe that does not appear to want them, rather than languish for years in a Turkish refugee camp.

If it was you, wouldn’t you make the same choice?

Saracens Solicitors is one of London’s most respected law firms. Our immigration team are experts in asylum and human rights law. If you wish to contact us about seeking asylum in the UK, please phone our London office on 020 3588 3500.