Turkey-Style Deals Will Not Solve the Next EU Migration Crisis
The EU-Turkey deal has been credited with helping to end the migration crisis of 2015-16, and after two years in force it has fostered a myth that such deals are cure-alls. They are not.
Inspired by the apparent success of the Turkey deal, the European Union has chased all manner of agreements with far-off nations. In June 2016, it announced a mix of financial and logistical support to countries including Mali, Niger, Jordan, and Senegal under the so-called Migration Partnerships Framework.
In February 2017, the Malta Declaration included a series of EU interventions in Libya that offered support to local authorities and other groups to reduce the number of people departing across the Central Mediterranean—measures that remain fragile and hotly contested.
These responses place great emphasis on transit routes to Europe—whether through Turkey or the Sahel region and Libya.
But what if the next major event is a different kind of shock altogether?
Patterns Already Changing
For a start, it will be a flatter crisis: no huge spikes in arrivals, but a diffuse pressure on many countries that will further strain EU ability to respond as it has in the past.
And the countries of origin are likely to be different and closer to home: Turkish citizens fleeing repression, Libyans escaping chaos and insecurity, or Ukrainians desperate to remove themselves from a seemingly intractable cycle of conflict and poverty.
Patterns are already starting to emerge. The number of Turkish nationals seeking asylum in Europe has been creeping up since the July 2016 attempted coup, from 4,980 applicants in 2015 to 15,625 in 2017. In Greece, the figure is starker, rising from 45 applications in 2015 to 1,825 in 2017. In Germany, the figure has jumped from 1,805 to 8,480 over the same period.
Along the Central Mediterranean route, analysts have highlighted an increasing number of Tunisians and Libyans attempting to board boats to Italy. While the numbers arriving remain modest overall—6,762 Tunisians and 1,352 Libyans since January 2017, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—this does not include an increasing number apprehended while trying to leave.
And the situation for many of Ukraine’s 1.8 million displaced people is only getting worse. As of the end of February, UNHCR had not managed to raise any money to fund its work in Ukraine for 2018, and the World Food Program recently stopped aid deliveries in the war-torn Donbass region because of a lack of resources.
The numbers arriving from Ukraine to claim asylum have slowed from a high of 22,040 in 2015, but the signs are worrying.
In this context, the EU partnership strategy would be largely defunct. Nationals of these countries could well consider EU Member States as their safe first countries. If they apply for asylum, the viability of their claims would have to be assessed. But they would arrive precisely where Europe’s asylum systems are at their weakest—Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, Greece, and Spain.
Some countries, such as Poland, have thus far circumvented an asylum crisis by offering work permits to Ukrainian arrivals instead. This is less likely to be a tenable strategy elsewhere in Europe.
Europe has spent too much time ruminating on the nature of the last few years to cast an eye ahead and understand the various scenarios that might unfold, and particularly the idea of complex pressure at multiple points.
The European Union is currently crossing its fingers and hoping that that these regions will stabilize, or that border management will be sufficient to prevent a new influx. But a more robust approach is needed.
Overall, the EU-Turkey deal is an odd template for success. From the deal’s inception, the focus of policymakers was on handling the Turkish government. But if there has been a weakness in the functioning of the deal, it has been on the Greek side, largely because of the need to assess large numbers of asylum applications.
Neither EU nor local authorities planned in any detail for how any deal would be implemented, and key elements such as appointing the Structural Reform Support Service—the EU Commission’s in-house management consultants—was decided on the spur of the moment.
It has taken two years for much of the machinery to be up and running, processing times are still very long, and just 2,164 people have been returned to Turkey under the deal in the past two years—a tiny increase in the rate of returns from 2015.
Conditions for those left on the Greek islands remain poor. But the picture is not all grim. In broad headline terms, the EU-Turkey deal has endured. Flows into Europe have remained low. The total number of people landing in Greece has never exceeded 5,000 in any one month since the deal was signed; in October 2015 there were 197,000 arrivals.
And in other areas, there has been significant progress in the past two years. Coordination within EU institutions has improved enormously, data collection and exchange have accelerated, and there is an operational readiness within the European Commission that did not exist prior to 2015.
The European Union needs more of this if it is to avoid the age-old pitfall of policymaking—always fixing the previous problem.