It would be easy to lose count of the European Council meetings convened in recent months to devise a concerted response to the arrival of refugees in Europe. Each of them ended either inconclusively or with resolutions that weren’t worth the paper they were written on – until last week, that is. On Thursday and Friday, for the first time in a long while, Europe’s heads of government found common ground on refugee issues and made decisions that stand a fair chance of being implemented. Despite the unanimity, though, it would be a bad thing if all those decisions were put into effect.
The EU leaders’ previous meeting, on 7 March, was convened at Germany’s request to discuss an agreement between the European Union and Turkey to prevent refugees from crossing into Greece from Turkey. The deal was intended to allow European countries to reopen their borders. Angela Merkel and her government wanted a European solution to the refugee crisis and a return to free movement across Europe’s internal borders, not least because of upcoming elections in three German states.
The 7 March summit ended without an agreement, at least partly because Turkey surprised the European Union with new proposals, and Merkel returned empty-handed to Berlin. A week later, the Christian Democrats, the party she has led for the past sixteen years, lost ground in elections in Sachsen-Anhalt in East Germany and in Rheinland-Pfalz and Baden-Württemberg in the West, as a significant number of conservative voters switched their support to the populist far-right Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), or AfD.
It’s important to recognise that Merkel herself was not necessarily among the losers in those three states. The leaders of the Christian Democrats in Rheinland-Pfalz and Baden-Württemberg, who both expected to form government after the elections, lost heavily. But the evidence suggests that they did so partly because they had disowned Merkel. Among the clear winners were the reigning premiers of these states, Malu Dreyer of the Social Democrats and Winfried Kretschmann of the Greens, both of whom are vocal supporters of Merkel’s refugee policies.
This didn’t stop Merkel’s internal critics. Last week, they continued to blame her for the Christian Democrats’ losses, claiming that the conservatives’ poor performance was entirely due to the federal government’s refugee policies and demanding that she agree at last to an upper limit on the number of refugees admitted by Germany. Merkel refused to do so, as she has done many times over the past few months. She also criticised attempts to close the escape route through the Western Balkans. But she promoted a Turkish–European deal to stem the flow of refugees to the European Union.
The leaders of the twenty-eight EU countries struck that deal with Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on Friday. According to a statement released by the European Council at the conclusion of the meeting, the agreement reflected a desire to “break the business model of the smugglers and to offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk.” But what exactly does it entail?
Most irregular migrants arriving on any Greek island from Turkey after the following day, Saturday 19 March, will be returned to Turkey. Those applying for asylum will have their applications processed in Greece, but only asylum seekers who can provide evidence that they won’t be protected in Turkey will be able to remain in Greece. For every Syrian returned from Greece to Turkey, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to an EU country. Up to 72,000 Syrians from Turkey will be resettled under this scheme, and they will be distributed according to a quota system agreed on last year. Turkey also committed to policing its sea border with Greece to prevent refugees from reaching the European Union in the first place.
In return, the EU governments agreed to pay Turkey €6 billion (half of it now and the other half by the end of 2018) for projects designed to benefit refugees in Turkey. They also agreed to lift visa requirements for Turkish citizens by the end of June, and to “re-energise” Turkey’s route to EU membership.
Finally, the European leaders and the Turkish prime minister agreed that the European Union “will work with Turkey in any joint endeavour to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria, in particular in certain areas near the Turkish border which would allow for the local population and refugees to live in areas which will be more safe.”
The United Nations refugee organisation, the UNHCR, has been deeply sceptical about the deal. While the UNHCR used diplomatic language, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations, and refugee advocacy groups including Germany’s widely respected Pro Asyl roundly condemned the agreement. So did commentators who had previously supported Angela Merkel’s stance.
They did so for good reason. Friday’s agreement assumes that people seeking protection in Greece will receive the same level of protection if they’re returned to Turkey. That is an illusion for two reasons: Turkey’s refugee policies and procedures, and Turkey’s human rights record.
Turkey acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention with a significant reservation, namely that it would apply the Convention’s provisions only to European refugees. That pretty much excludes all refugees currently in Turkey. Three years ago, Turkey passed a Law on Foreigners and International Protection that doesn’t distinguish between European and non-European refugees, but so far it hasn’t been fully implemented. In the meantime, Turkey distinguishes between Syrian refugees, who are granted temporary protection on a prima facie basis and are entitled to basic rights and services including the right to work, and other refugees, who don’t have access to these rights and services. As a detailed report published by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles last December makes clear, even for Syrians many of the rights considered essential in Europe (and embodied, for example, in rulings by the European Court of Human Rights) exist only on paper, if at all, in Turkey.
Asylum seekers and refugees aren’t the only ones whose human rights are breached by the Turkish government. Under the autocratic regime of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, newspapers critical of the government have been closed down, government critics have been jailed, and a war against sections of Turkey’s Kurdish minority continues. Because Erdoğan’s government violates human rights norms, negotiations over Turkey’s accession to the European Union ought to be on hold. Courtesy of the deal struck last week, they are being sped up instead. In return for Turkey’s contribution to securing Europe’s external borders, the European Union is turning a blind eye to these democratic and human rights deficits.
But it’s the final item of the European–Turkish agreement, the creation of so-called safe zones in Syria, that is potentially the most troubling. These zones are likely to be used by Turkey as a justification for returning refugees to Syria or stopping them from entering Turkey in the first place. They could also provide a pretext for Turkey to intervene militarily in areas of Syria controlled by Kurdish forces. And they potentially expose internally displaced people to the risk of becoming the pawns of warring parties in Syria, whether the Assad regime, ISIS or Turkey.
This is not to argue against one important aspect of the deal, namely that Europe will be obliged to resettle Syrian refugees from Turkey. Turkey accommodates far more refugees from Syria than all European countries combined. And while the standards of protection in Turkey are not as high as in EU countries, for millions of Syrians Turkey has provided comparative safety. The European Union ought to support Turkey’s efforts to provide housing, education and health care to refugees. It ought also to assist Turkey by resettling refugees currently living there – not by paying Turkey for a refugee swap, but by admitting far more than the paltry 72,000 Syrians agreed to on Friday.
As Angela Merkel keeps pointing out, she and Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann didn’t decide to open Germany’s and Austria’s borders in early September 2015 and let in hundreds of thousands of refugees. Rather, they decided not to close them, and to let refugees enter Austria and Germany without registering them.
Merkel has not been trying to force Germany to accept a very large number of refugees. Nor does she necessarily believe that Germany should take its fair share of the world’s displaced people – that it should match the efforts of countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia. Nor is she strongly committed to the right of asylum enshrined in Article 16a of the German constitution. In fact, by declaring their countries of origin safe, her government has repeatedly made it difficult for people to engage Germany’s protection obligations.
But the German chancellor is committed to upholding the German constitution’s Article 1 (1): “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” As she explained in an interview three weeks ago, “That applies to everybody who is in our country, no matter whether they are German or a guest or a refugee or whoever.” According to Merkel, the human rights of somebody who arrives at Germany’s borders and seeks asylum must be respected. The principle that human dignity shall be inviolable applies not only to the refugee whose protection claim has been recognised (and who, according to the government, needs to be quickly integrated into German society), but also to the person whose claim has been rejected and who will therefore be deported.
Merkel’s commitment to Article 1 is admirable. After gaining a reputation during the first nine years of her reign as a ditherer and a pragmatist without any strong convictions, she has shown leadership on an issue open to exploitation by the populists of the far right. Because of her commitment to Article 1, she has spoken out strongly against Germans who resisted accommodating refugees in their towns and villages. Not only should Germans obey the rules of hospitality; they must also respect the human dignity of their guests not because of their status as guests but because, as far as their claim to human dignity is concerned, they are no different from German citizens.
It now appears that Merkel’s concern for human dignity ends at the German border. Article 1 of the constitution may apply to whoever happens to be in Germany, but it does not apply to people in Greece or Turkey or Syria. It does not apply to Turkish journalists and academics who are being jailed because they are staunch critics of president Erdoğan. It does not apply to refugees stranded in Turkey or Greece.
Is the German government to blame for the outcome of last week’s EU summit? Yes and no. Yes, because Merkel desperately wanted the European Union to strike a deal with Turkey. Other EU leaders, including François Hollande, were reportedly much less enthusiastic about that deal.
To be fair, though, Friday’s deal was not Merkel’s preferred solution. She had wanted the European Union to agree to an equitable distribution of asylum seekers and refugees across its twenty-eight member states. Each country was to take a proportion of displaced people according to its capacity. Under such a deal, Germany would have taken more than anybody else, but every country would have accommodated at least some refugees. She was also in favour of a generous resettlement scheme whereby the Europeans would admit a sizeable number of Syrians directly from countries of first asylum.
Last year, the European Union agreed that an initial 160,000 people would be moved from Italy and Greece to other EU countries on the basis of individual European nations’ capacity to resettle refugees. The Guardian reported last week that of these 160,000, only 937 have so far been resettled.
This suggests that the Turkish–European deal won’t work either – unless, of course, Germany committed last week to resettling all Syrians passed on by Turkey (with the proviso that such a commitment would only be honoured if it were not made public), or Germany’s European partners assumed it will be the sole resettlement country simply because everybody else will be unwilling to accommodate any refugees. Either way, there is little doubt that Germany is prepared to take in more Syrians from Turkey and from Greece.
In recent weeks, the number of refugees reaching Germany has dropped dramatically to fewer than one hundred per day (compared with thousands who arrived each day in the second half of last year). In that context, Germany would easily be able to accommodate at least the 72,000 Syrians who might be resettled in the European Union according to last Friday’s agreement.
How did it come to this? Weren’t Europeans prepared to accommodate – indeed, didn’t they welcome with open arms – large numbers of refugees less than six months ago?
The images of Germans handing out toys to Syrian children at railway stations in Munich and elsewhere were deceptive. By October, national governments and popular majorities in most countries of the European Union didn’t want to have anything to do with refugees – not just in the countries of Eastern Europe but also in Britain and Denmark. Almost anywhere else, the mood was wary at best.
The wave of compassion triggered by wide dissemination of the image of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body in early September quickly dissipated. Even in September, only three countries were willing to accommodate a significant number of refugees: Germany, Austria and Sweden. Italy and Greece, the first ports of call in Europe for most new arrivals, were also willing to play their part. But only a handful of others – among them Finland and Luxembourg – were prepared to consider an arrangement whereby refugees would be distributed across EU member states according to a quota system.
Compassion turned into indifference, indifference turned into wariness, and wariness into fear. This is not to say that most Europeans are afraid of refugees. Some are, of course, and they feel vindicated by the terrorist attacks in France. But in Western Europe, more are worried that the arrival of refugees will unleash the far-right extremists. In Germany, in particular, the fear of a resurgent far right outweighs other anxieties.
This fear seems justified. A party with a xenophobic anti-immigration agenda won more than 30 per cent of the vote in state elections in Austria last year; if federal elections were held in Austria now, that party could overtake both the conservatives and the Social Democrats. In the recent state elections in Germany, the AfD won more than 15 per cent of the vote in Baden-Württemberg, a traditionally conservative and exceptionally affluent state in West Germany. According to recent opinion polls in Sweden, the populist, xenophobic Sweden Democrats would win up to a third of the vote if national elections were held there now.
But it is too easy to say that the decision to leave the borders open to refugees turns democrats into supporters of the far right. In Germany at least, many of those voting for the AfD didn’t suddenly discover the attraction of racism. Their belief system didn’t change after September 2015. Instead, they are now willing to own up to their views. A large proportion of the AfD’s voters didn’t vote in previous elections. In East Germany, many AfD voters once voted for Die Linke, the former communist party. Die Linke, much like the AfD, has been able to attract disaffected Germans who identify as victims, blame foreigners and the West for their supposed suffering, and consider Vladimir Putin their hero. In recent months, racism, Islamophobia and over-the-top German nationalism have become more visible, but they were not spawned by the arrival of refugees.
In Germany, which has accommodated the majority of irregular migrants crossing into Europe last year, another factor has contributed to the increasing wariness about the prospect of further mass arrivals. Contrary to expectations, Germany has struggled to cope with the new arrivals.
Unlike, say, Greece, Germany does have the necessary material resources, but its bureaucratic processes have not been up to the task. No federal agency knows exactly how many irregular migrants arrived in 2015, and how many of them stayed on rather than proceeding to Sweden. Many of those who arrived last year have not yet been able to lodge their application for protection; others, who did apply, have been waiting for many months, and in some cases more than a year, for a decision. Sports centres and other facilities that were meant to serve only as emergency accommodation for a couple of weeks have been used to house refugees for months. In fact, if it were not for the assistance provided by an army of volunteers, the services put in place for refugees who arrived last year might have long since collapsed.
The story is similar in Sweden. The Scandinavian country, too, couldn’t cope with the influx of refugees last year. But in fairness, it should be noted that Sweden accommodated more refugees than Germany on a per capita basis, and that Germany was in a much better financial position.
While Friday’s agreement stipulates what is to happen to irregular migrants arriving in Greece from 20 March, it is silent on what will happen to people who arrived in Greece before that date and who are now stranded, given that the route via Macedonia is all but closed. Theoretically, they should be transferred to other European countries under the quota system agreed to last year, but that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Last Wednesday Angela Merkel gave a speech in the German parliament in which she argued why a deal with Turkey was necessary. She put a lot of emphasis on the relationship between Greece and the other twenty-seven EU countries, and suggested that it was crucial for the European project that Greece not be left to its own devices. But if Greece’s interests were uppermost in the minds of Europe’s heads of government last week, then it is curious that the 46,000 refugees currently in Greece are not mentioned in the press release put out by the European Council.
While the measures agreed on last week were meant to come into effect at the weekend, few of them can be implemented immediately. For starters, Greece does not have the personnel to deal with a large number of individual asylum applications. The return of refugees to Turkey may yet be challenged in the Greek and European courts. After all, other EU countries are currently prevented from returning asylum seekers to Greece in line with the provisions of the Dublin Agreements, after the European Court of Human Rights found that asylum seekers in Greece don’t have adequate access to rights and services. It seems obvious that their access to those rights and services would only be further diminished if they were returned to Turkey.
Of course the deal between the European Union and Turkey is unlikely to do anything other than temporarily stop the flow of refugees into Europe. People smugglers and refugees themselves will look for other routes: via Bulgaria, via Russia and northern Europe, or via the central Mediterranean. None of these routes is any safer than the one via Greece and the Western Balkans. As long as the root causes of people movements – particularly, but not only, in Syria and Iraq – are not addressed and as long as the accommodation of refugees in neighbouring non-European countries such as Jordan and Lebanon – and Turkey! – is inadequate, desperate people will continue to try reaching Europe. •