EU leaders have agreed to extend a 2016 agreement with Turkey aimed at preventing migrants from reaching Europe. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel says the controversial deal has "proven its worth."
At a virtual meeting at which the EU Council members mainly discussed the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the leaders said they wanted to continue dialogue with Turkey despite some "significant differences."
In a statement the Council welcomed the "recent de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean brought about by the discontinuation of illegal drilling activities, the resumption of bilateral talks between Greece and Turkey, and the forthcoming talks on the Cyprus question under the auspices of the United Nations."
Following the virtual meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that there was a need to maintain "contacts with Turkey at all levels" and to talk about common as well as conflicting interests.
The EU wants to prepare an extension of the customs union with Turkey. During the EU summit, the heads of state or government called on the Council of ministers to start negotiating a negotiating mandate for the European Commission.
This could then enter into talks with the Ankara government. The resolution is intended to provide a strong incentive for Turkey to constructively seek a solution to conflicts with Greece and Cyprus. The conflicts, until recently, included Turkish gas explorations near the Greek islands and off Cyprus.
In the dispute, the EU threatened Turkey with severe sanctions last December. The country then put an end to the controversial gas exploration and indicated its willingness to talk.
Both sides have a great economic interest in the expansion of the customs union. For example, it could stimulate trade in the agricultural and services sectors. The negotiations should actually start at the end of 2016, but so far the EU Member States have not given the EU Commission a negotiating mandate.
In the summer of 2018, during a ministerial meeting, it was officially decided not to start negotiations on the expansion of the customs union for the time being. Turkey was recently further removed from the European Union, it said in a statement at the time. Above all, the ongoing setbacks in the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedom of expression are of great concern. Actions against journalists, academics, human rights activists, opposition politicians and social media users cannot be tolerated.
It was initially unclear whether this decision was now outdated. Thursday’s statement again strongly condemned developments in Turkey, but there was no direct link to the issue of the customs union or other areas of cooperation.
The passage merely states that the rule of law and the dialogue on fundamental rights will remain an integral part of EU-Turkey relations. The recent attacks on political parties and the media, as well as other decisions, were major human rights setbacks and were in violation of Turkey’s commitment to respect democracy, the rule of law and the rights of women.
Heads of state or government alluded to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decreeing last weekend that he was withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention on the Protection of Women from Violence. A few days earlier, the public prosecutor in Ankara had also filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court to ban the pro-Kurdish opposition party HDP, among other things over terrorist allegations. It also demands a five-year political ban on more than 680 HDP politicians.
In addition to expanding the customs union, if Turkey makes further progress in the gas dispute, efforts will be made again to promote mobility and direct personal contacts between Turks and EU citizens. Turkey has long unsuccessfully demanded that all Turks be allowed to travel to EU countries without a visa.
In addition, regardless of further developments in the gas dispute, the EU intends to expand its cooperation with Turkey in areas such as border protection and the fight against illegal migration, and to improve the return of irregular migrants and rejected asylum seekers to Turkey. . As an incentive for this, the European Commission must prepare further financial support for the reception of Syrian refugees.
Current cooperation with Turkey on migration policy is mainly based on a refugee pact concluded in 2016. It provides, among other things, that the EU can return all migrants who come to the Greek islands illegally via Turkey. In return, EU countries are taking those in need of protection from Syria and funding aid for refugees living in Turkey. Their number was last given at about four million.
The European Commission has recently criticized the fact that Turkey is currently no longer accepting migrants from Greece. Ankara justifies this with the corona pandemic.
EU ready to launch high-level talks with Turkey, bloc's leaders say
EU leaders said they are ready to launch high-level dialogue with Turkey on issues of mutual concern, as they expressed the desire to improve relations with Ankara, according to a statement released following a virtual summit on Thursday. Issues of common concern between the bloc and Turkey include counterterrorism efforts, public health and climate, according to the statement. The bloc’s leaders are ready, “provided that the current de-escalation is sustained,” to discuss modernizing Turkey’s 25-year-old customs union with the EU. They are also prepared to strengthen cooperation on “people to people contacts and mobility,” a possible reference to visa liberalization. “In the past month we have seen positive developments ... but the situation remains fragile,” EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said before the talks began. The EU is trying to build on recent conciliatory moves from Turkey after the country was involved in a spat over the Eastern Mediterranean with Greece.
EU members are divided over the approach to Turkey, with the Greek Cypriot administration, Greece and France urging a tough line while others, led by economic powerhouse Germany, take a softer approach. Brussels has been encouraged by the resumption of talks with Greece over a disputed maritime border and by plans to restart U.N. peace efforts for the divided island of Cyprus. The U.N. is hosting informal talks April 27-29 in Geneva between the rival Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides as well as the island’s guarantors – Greece, Turkey and former colonial ruler Britain. Turkish leaders have repeatedly stressed that Ankara is in favor of resolving outstanding problems in the region through international law, good neighborly relations, dialogue and negotiations. Instead of opting to solve problems with Ankara through dialogue, Athens has, on several occasions, refused to sit at the negotiation table and opted to rally Brussels to take a tougher stance against Turkey. The statement also indicates that the 27 states will task the European Commission with preparing a proposal for fresh funds for the more than 4 million Syrian refugees Turkey hosts, and propose stepping up cooperation in curbing illegal migration.
They noted that cooperation with Ankara should be strengthened Under the migration deal, Turkey promised to seal off its borders and take back irregular migrants from the Greek islands in exchange for some 6 billion euros (7.2 billion dollars.) The policy curbed the flow of migrants reaching Europe, but has had disastrous consequences for those seeking protection, according to rights organizations.
Turkey has a very long history with the union and the longest negotiation process. The country signed an association agreement with the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC), in 1964, which is usually regarded as a first step to eventually become a candidate. Applying for official candidacy in 1987, Turkey had to wait until 1999 to be granted the status of a candidate country. For the start of the negotiations, however, Turkey had to wait for another six years, until 2005, a uniquely long process compared with other candidates. Turkey has been putting special emphasis on the need to update the March 18 statement on migration struck with the bloc in 2016, saying that conditions have changed for refugees in five years.
The UNHCR President Filippo Grandi addressed the international community before the Donors Conference that will be held next week in Brussels to help Syria.
Grandi noted that there is need for 5 billion 800 million dollars to implement programs in the countries that host the largest numbers of Syrian refugees, namely Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, and if these programs cannot be financed, there might be huge waves of new influx of asylum seekers towards the EU.
He noted that there are already ships moving towards Cyprus from Lebanon and the explosion that happened at the port in Beirut affected Lebanon’s economy badly. He urged the EU not to leave Lebanon alone in dealing with migrants.
International Syrian Donors Conference, with the initiative of the EU, will be held on March 29th – 30th online.
The financial aid that is hopefully going to be collected is expected to help the 4,8 million Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers. Last year, the conference managed to collect only the 53% of the target amount.
Moreover, Turkey wants the EU-Turkey deal to be revised and to receive more funds from the EU.
As European Union membership continues to be a strategic target for Turkey, updating the Customs Union will be a key step to create a positive agenda between both sides, said Turkey's trade minister on Tuesday.
Following a videoconference meeting with EU Economic Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, Ruhsar Pekcan said they discussed wide-ranging issues from Turkish-EU trade ties, updating the Customs Union, and the Green Deal.
The meeting came ahead of an EU leaders' summit on Thursday and Friday where Turkey will be discussed, and Turkey expects positive results, said Pekcan.
Underlining that updating the Customs Union became even more important due to the pandemic and Brexit, Pekcan said Turkey got very strong support on the issue from business circles in Europe.
Despite all its benefits, the quarter-century-old Customs Union is insufficient to meet the expectations of either side under current conditions, she argued.
In addition to systemic and specific structural problems, the current Customs Union does not cover areas such as services and e-commerce, which are growing increasingly important, she added.
"In this respect, the Customs Union falls short of reflecting the true potential of commercial and economic ties between the parties and the vision of our partnership agreement," she said.
"More economic cooperation between the EU and Turkey will provide great benefits to both sides," she added.
On the EU's Green Deal, Pekcan stressed that Turkey has been following its development very closely, saying she hopes "the deal will not cause further protectionist policies."
"We need to work together so that the free movement of the goods will not be blocked," she stressed, adding that accessing finance for Turkey's green transition is quite important.
She also emphasized that efforts to carry out customs procedures in harmony with both the EU and in a digital environment should be accelerated.
"We’re ready to cooperate in order to digitalize customs procedures and provide the necessary technological transformation in this direction," said the EU’s Gentiloni.
He added that negotiations on a mutual recognition agreement should be continued in close cooperation, saying it is gratifying to hear that the technical negotiations are going very well in this context.
Deepen trade with Turkey but ready sanctions, EU report says
The European Union should start negotiations on deeper trade ties with Turkey but be ready to impose economic sanctions if Ankara moves against the bloc’s interests, according to a report prepared for a summit of EU leaders this week.
The offer of closer economic links, mixed with threats, reflects the complex relationship between Turkey, an EU candidate, and the world’s largest trading bloc, which have drifted apart but are now seeking improved ties.
“Strengthening our already substantial economic ties is another win-win situation for both sides … At the heart of this would be the modernisation and expansion of the scope of the current EU-Turkey Customs Union,” said the report by EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell and the European Commission.
The report, made public on Tuesday, said Turkey deserved more financial support for hosting millions of Syrian refugees, as well as visa-free travel to the EU, more high-profile diplomatic contacts and an expanded customs union.
But such progress would only be possible if Turkey respected human rights and showed greater flexibility over the divided island of Cyprus and hydrocarbon rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
Taking back almost 1,500 migrants and refugees living on Greek islands, and whose legal appeals have now been exhausted, would also be critical.
“The situation of refugees in Turkey continues to deteriorate, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn. Therefore, continued EU support will be required over the next years,” said the report.
The EU is expected to provide fresh funds from 2022 for the four million refugees that Turkey hosts, following some six billion euros ($7.12bn) spent over the past four years.
The report said Turkey had failed to align its sanctions policy with that of the EU in the area of foreign policy, as it should have. Its policy on Libya often ran contrary to EU aims.
In December, EU leaders proposed asset freezes and travel bans over Turkey’s “unauthorised drilling activities” for natural gas in disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean.
But a more constructive tone from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this year prompted the EU to halt work on those sanctions.
The report said a sliding scale of sanctions, to be used only as leverage, could include punitive measures on individuals, moving up towards important sectors such as energy and tourism.
Targeting tourism, which accounts for up to 12 percent of the Turkish economy, appeared to be a new threat from Brussels, which has decried Erdogan’s rule. Turkey’s EU membership talks are frozen.
“Should Turkey not move forward constructively in developing a genuine partnership with the EU, it should be made clear that this would bear political and economic consequences,” the report said.
Turkey, EU to work together for positive agenda: FM Çavuşoğlu
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met Monday with the European Union's foreign policy chief in Brussels and discussed bilateral ties, regional issues and other matters, underlining that Turkey and the bloc will work together for a positive agenda.
Turkey's top diplomat said on Twitter that Turkey "will work together with EU High Representative Josep Borrell to continue (the) positive agenda."
"More cooperation is needed on updating (the) Customs Union, visa liberalization, irregular migration and (the) fight against terrorism," said Çavuşoğlu.
He added that "regional issues including Syria, Afghanistan and Libya" were also among the subjects the two officials discussed during the meeting.
"We want to establish relations with Turkey as a candidate country, a neighbor and an important country where we can develop the best relations. We want to do this by defending the interests of member states and the EU," Borrell said after a meeting of EU foreign ministers taking place before the EU leaders' summit this week.
Turkey-EU relations will be evaluated during the summit. Borrell also said that in the coming weeks, the EU would continue to closely monitor Turkey's actions by setting certain milestones, such as talks on resolving the Cyprus issue and exploratory talks with Greece.
EU leaders at the December summit asked Borrell to report on how to advance relations with Turkey. In this context, a report presented at Monday's meeting summarized economic and political relations between Turkey and the EU in recent years.
Based on the report, the EU ministers will also address migration and the renewal of the EU-Turkey deal, signed in 2016 to stop irregular flows of migrants to Europe and to improve the conditions of Syrian migrants in Turkey.
Last week, Borrell said it was necessary to strike a new deal because the 2016 agreement had "produced tangible results" and "led to a significant decrease of loss of human lives, a reduction in irregular crossing and improved the situation of refugees and migrants in Turkey."
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also stated last week that Turkey expects concrete results that will pave the way for further enhancement of ties following the EU summit on March 25-26.
Turkey relations top of EU foreign ministers’ agenda
EU foreign ministers convened on Monday to discuss the bloc’s future relationship with Turkey.
“Turkey is the first item on the agenda,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said ahead of the meeting.
EU's top diplomat said the ministers will "take stock" of a report drafted by Borrell and the EU diplomatic service on future ties with Turkey.
The report welcomes Turkey's “positive steps” and “calmer, more constructive attitude,” according to a leak published by the Politico news media outlet specialized in EU affairs.
The document also suggests to "deepen the present momentum and incentivize closer EU-Turkey ties across the board" with the expansion of customs union as well as involving Turkey further in EU-financed research or youth programs like Horizon Europe and Erasmus+.
Based on the report, the EU ministers will also address migration and the renewal of the EU-Turkey deal, signed in 2016 to stop irregular flows of asylum seekers to Europe and to improve the conditions of Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Last week, Borrell said it was necessary to strike a new deal because the 2016 agreement had “produced tangible results” and “led to a significant decrease of loss of human lives, a reduction in irregular crossing and improved the situation of refugees and migrants in Turkey.”
Borrell will meet Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in person later on Monday to discuss the document.
- Human rights
Another important point of the agenda is the bloc’s relations with Russia.
The foreign ministers will also discuss the human rights situation across the world with UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.
The ministers are expected to adopt sanctions against 11 officials from Myanmar involved in the military coup and repression of civil protesters.
The EU ministerial meeting is a curtain raiser for the EU leaders’ virtual summit scheduled for Thursday and Friday.
EU heads of state and government are expected to agree on the main directions of EU-Turkey relations during their videoconference.
Over 28,000 relocations 5 years into EU-Turkey migrant pact
In the five years since an agreement was brought in between the EU and Turkey, some 28,621 Syrian refugees have been relocated to EU countries from Turkish camps. NGOs continue to criticize the accord.
Five years after the so-called EU-Turkey deal was reached, a total of 28,621 Syrian refugees have been relocated in the EU from Turkish camps they had been hosted in. 2,140 migrants that disembarked irregularly on Greek islands have been sent back to Turkey.
The accord was heavily criticized by NGOs but led to a sharp reduction in migration flows from Turkey to the EU: from a peak of almost one million people in 2015 to about 10,000 in 2020, with a further drop linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ankara wants a new agreement
In addition to the relocations on the basis of one Syrian transferred to Europe in exchange for one irregular one sent back to Turkey, the pact called for the transfer to Turkey of six billion euros for managing the Syrian refugees hosted in its territory, currently at over 3.6 million.
Brussels has said that 4.1 billion have already been used, while the rest is in contracts and will be spent by 2023.
The government under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed instead that the resources used for Syrians so far totals 3.6 million and complained that the EU has not kept its pledges, including the liberalization of visas for Turkish citizens. Turkey now wants the agreement to be renegotiated.
Oxfam warns thousands of migrants suffering on Greek islands
Meanwhile, on the fifth anniversary of the announcement of the agreement between the EU and Turkey, Oxfam on Thursday chimed in with other NGOs criticising the agreement, calling it a total failure of EU policies on migration management and claiming that it has violated the basic rights of tens of thousands of innocent people.
In an open letter addressed to the EU, Oxfam and seven other NGOs called for a radical change in direction that would lead to a definitive halt to building new camps on Greek islands, as provided for by the new EU pact.
Oxfam added that, since the signing of the agreement, not a single day has passed without many families getting trapped in camps on Greek islands in inhumane conditions.
The organization added in a statement that, through the agreement, "The EU's aim to keep asylum seekers on the Greek islands was to speed up their return to Turkey has resulted in appalling living conditions, violent border control practices and immense delays in asylum procedures," often making asylum impossible.
It noted that the families arriving on the islands often come from countries that have been at war for years, such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In 2021, some 1,068 migrants arrived in Greece, including 566 via sea.
LEAK: Borrell report suggests new carrot-and-stick approach for Turkey
Turkey will be invited to follow a path of dialogue and reap some economic benefits, or move further away from Europe and face consequences, the EU’s chief diplomat wrote in his Turkey report, set to be discussed by EU leaders later this week, according to a draft report seen by EURACTIV.
On Monday (22 March), EU foreign ministers are having a preliminary discussion about parts of the report, which includes the state of play in EU-Turkey political, economic and trade relations, before EU leaders discuss the way forward in relations with Ankara on Thursday.
“Since last December, Turkey has shown a calmer, more constructive attitude on various issues, including in its bilateral relations with several EU member states. These are positive and welcome steps forward,” the report states.
Borrell’s report, however, warns that “the process of de-escalation remains fragile” and thus calls for “more time to judge whether it is sustainable and credible and delivers lasting results, also in the light of the deteriorating domestic situation in Turkey”.
Erdoğan’s government withdrew from the Istanbul Convention on Saturday, a document committing signatories to prevent, prosecute, and eliminate domestic violence and promote equality.
The move was said to have largely irritated the EU and US, marking the second time in four days that Europe’s leaders have criticised Ankara over rights issues, after a Turkish prosecutor moved to close down a pro-Kurdish political party.
In another setback, diplomats from Turkey and fellow NATO member Greece failed to reach a breakthrough last week during the latest round of talks on their stand-off over eastern Mediterranean borders and energy rights.
At a summit in December, EU leaders postponed once again a decision to impose sanctions on Turkey for its “unauthorised” activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Borrell’s report again suggests adopting a ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach towards Ankara, by putting “a number of possible areas of cooperation on the table to allow for a progressive, proportionate and reversible approach”.
Those mostly economic incentives would include “a modernisation and expansion of the scope of the current EU-Turkey Customs Union” and support in economic reforms as well as “increasing people-to-people contacts is a further confidence-building measure” such as the participation in the next generation of EU programmes Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe.
“The Commission remains ready to advise Turkey on the specifics of the outstanding benchmarks defined in the Visa Liberalisation Roadmap,” the report also suggests.
The report also states that migration could be part of a more positive agenda with Turkey, especially a “more effective and mutually beneficial implementation” of the existing 2016 EU-Turkey deal on migration.
It, however, provides some sticks in case Turkey does “not move forward constructively in developing a genuine partnership with the EU, but instead return to renewed unilateral actions or provocations.”
Those would involve “smart, scalable yet reversible restrictive measures, building on those in place” and could be expanded to include legal entities or “measures targetting other sectors important for the Turkish economy, such as a prohibition to supply of tourism services, negative travel advice by member states etc.”
Such sectoral sanctions would have to be agreed by all EU countries.
The measures are also meant to be reversible in order to “adapt to the situation and the level of threat or challenge in the best possible manner, incentivise a return to a cooperative track and avoid a negative escalation dynamic”, the report concludes.
EURACTIV has learnt that Athens is satisfied with the report and only displeased by its failure to mention Turkey’s casus belli with Greece.
Turkey has for decades disputed Greece’s rights in the Aegean Sea. The Turkish parliament declared 25 years ago that any extension of territorial waters from Greece’s side will be considered an act of war.
However, EU diplomats are not convinced there can be a positive breakthrough in the relations any time soon.
“Turkey’s actions have improved, but there is still lots to do,” a senior EU official told reporters last Thursday, adding that there is still a wide range of issues standing in their way.
On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held a video conference with European Council President Charles Michel and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
“They also discussed a possible visit to Turkey following the March EU summit”, the short EU statement said, signalling that Erdoğan, who insists on a summit with EU leaders, has received another carrot from Brussels.
The December summit conclusions had suggested that Europe should wait for the new US administration in order to align its approach to the issue with Washington.
Sources close to the matter suggest that the new US administration has told Europeans to keep a low profile with Ankara and avoid the risk of pushing it toward Moscow.
Education, health remain EU’s priority in helping Syrian refugees in Turkey: Envoy
The European Union’s preferred areas in lending the millions of Syrian refugees a helping hand will continue to be education and health, the EU’s envoy to Turkey has said, as European leaders will discuss how to continue cooperation with Turkey at a summit on March 25 and 26.
In an interview with the Hürriyet Daily News during his two-day trip to the border town of Hatay, the head of the EU Delegation in Turkey Ambassador Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut outlined the performance of the migrant deal between the two sides since March 2016.
How do you evaluate the fact that Turkey is hosting four million refugees and the performance of the ongoing Turkish-EU migrant cooperation on the 10th year of the Syrian crisis and fifth year of the migrant deal?
Turkey, its government, its municipalities - as we have seen in Hatay and other places - but also the Turkish people are making a really remarkable and extraordinary effort to host such a huge refugee population which is right now the biggest refugee population any country is hosting. And this puts of course on the state and the people a burden which is not easy to shoulder. This is where the EU is contributing. But it is just a contribution, the biggest part of the burden is, of course, carried by Turkey.
How would you assess the impact of the Turkish-EU deal?
First of all, this deal has saved many, many lives. Because much fewer people have ventured the very dangerous journey from the Turkish mainland to the Greek islands. Secondly, the cooperation in terms of relocation, migration management - with some difficulties - have produced some positive results. Even if now, under the pandemic, some of these obligations have not been able to be fully implemented as promised by the EU. The third dimension is financial support from EU to the projects to implement programs to help Syrians and Turkish host communities to cope with the burden. These programs have proved the value when you speak with the people responsible in the cities, provinces, municipalities chambers of commerce. They acknowledge that these programs have contributed to –at least- mitigating the problems. The EU has now contracted the full 6 billion Euro which we promised and the implementation of some projects is taking more time than we hoped but they are partially complex projects which are not easy to implement.
One of the voiced criticisms is about the unwillingness of member states to resettle the Syrians…
Over the five years, around 25,000 Syrian refugees were resettled from Turkey to Europe with the help of the UNHCR. This is proximately 10 times the number Turkey readmitted from the Greek islands. So, you can, of course, hope for bigger numbers but some resettlement has taken place. And, actually, the number of member states which have participated in the system has been increasing.
But, still, this number is still too little when comparing to millions of refugees in Turkey.
Yes, the number compared to the burden which Turkey is shouldering is limited.
The head of states and governments back in December expressed their continued political will to support Turkey also financially in coping with this huge refugee problem in Turkey. The EU has expressed its fundamental political support for continued cooperation in this area. And at the end of the week, the EU council will meet again to address these issues. At the end of this month, we will have a conference together with the U.N., Turkey in which the Turkish government will participate where the focus will be on the assistance to the Syrian people.
Comparing to 2016, the refugee number doubled and there is less prospect for their return. We are talking more about their integration than their return. The nature is changing, do you think the scope of the deal will also be changed?
Let me start by saying one sentence about the 10th year of this conflict. The root cause of this situation and refugee crisis remains: The brutal repression by the Assad regime within Syria and unwillingness of this regime with its international supporters to enter in any meaningful process which could lead to a political solution, which could be the precondition of for discussing the returns and the reconstruction and anything. The responsibility of the prolonged responsibility lies with those I just mentioned.
On the orientation, already in the second part of this refugee assistance and contracts you can notice the shift in priorities. Of course, health is and remains a priority.
We have prolonged our cooperation with the Health Ministry for the value of 300 million euros in terms of health support to Syrian refugees. Education also remains a priority. We continue to support with a large program with the Education Ministry to include the Syrian children to the national education.
Refugees should contribute to the richness of their communities
We have added this very important third dimension with contracts we have concluded with the World Bank and Labor Ministry to support the Syrian refugees and host communities in their inclusion into the work life and vocational training, other trainings to enable these people to earn their own livelihood and to become the contributor to the richness of this country and not only those who are only burden. The process towards supporting them in a way they can earn livelihood is one of the shifts in priority comparing to five years ago.
For the next stage, discussions have not started with the Turkish authorities. Because we can only support the priorities the Turkish authorities have themselves. But in my personal assessment, I think education, vocational training, and opening up opportunities for these refugees to make their life to earn and learn livelihood for their families is very important. And, actually, it is important also for those who might return to Syria. If they have the opportunity to learn something in Turkey, they won’t forget when they return to Syria. So, it is an investment which in any case is useful and worthy.
You outlined education. Could you summarize the EU support in that field?
Turkey has managed something quite exceptional. When I talked to UNICEF or other organizations which have comparisons with other countries, Turkey has managed to include in its national education system more than 700,000 Syrian kids. This is a huge success. Unfortunately, because the young population among the refugees is big, there are still many who are not part of this system, but it is still a huge success. The EU is trying to support in two ways:
One way is infrastructure. Because having so much more students in schools, it’s fact that they need more schools, classrooms. So, we, together, with the Education Ministry, are contributing to the building, the refurbishment or modernization of over 400 schools in the country for the value of more than 600 million Euro. You don’t only need the schools and classrooms, but you also need teachers. So, we are also supporting a program from the Education Ministry. The teachers are supported to help in this huge education effort. These teachers have really proved to be very engaged, dynamic and active important contribution to this inclusion of these young people to the system.
Hatay is doing its best to cope with refugees
Hatay is hosting around half a million refugees, making one third of the entire population. What was your impression?
We talked to many people here and you feel that the Syrian issues and the unresolved Idlib case but also hosting such a huge number of refugees, itself, are a huge preoccupation. Local authorities do their best to mitigate the consequences here on the ground but of course they need support from the national government and the support we can provide. But it is also a region which has lost part of its potential because of the war just across the border going on for 10 years. We hear it in the hotels: No Syrian guests are coming from Syria; no international tourists either as they are more cautious. Proximity to Syria makes it that effect is doubled than other regions. The refugee problem itself and proximity to Syria and the consequences it has on the economy and security is something you feel much stronger here more, than any other regions.
My last question is on the legal action against the HDP. The move came just days after the government outlined the human rights’ action and other reforms. How do you assess all these?
The reforms announced in the Human Rights Action Plan and in the economic area will of course need to be seen how it is implemented. Announcement of these reforms are important but what matters in the end is the implementation.
On the HDP, High Representative Josep Borrell and the commissioner have expressed their deep concerns about this situation: Deep concern because they see here an element which could further contribute to the deterioration in the trust in the Turkish democracy. Now we have to see how this process continues.
Democracy and a functioning democracy are among the key values of the EU and we expect that a candidate country to the EU is also living up to its commitments and promises in this area. Turkey, as one of the founding members of the Council of Europe, has the international obligations and it will be important to see how they are lived up to.
EU Commission highlights Turkey's constructive attitude in report
The European Commission welcomes Turkey’s recent constructive attitude on many bilateral issues, according to a report prepared by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy released on Monday, while the report noted that the Eastern Mediterranean, the island of Cyprus and other issues still pose a threat to ties with the country.
The European Union should "put a number of possible areas of cooperation on the table" in relations with Turkey "to allow for a progressive, proportionate and reversible approach," the bloc's foreign policy chief said in the new report to be presented to EU leaders this week.
The report by the bloc's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, was passed at Monday's Foreign Affairs Council meeting and will be presented to EU leaders at a key summit this Thursday and Friday where the EU-Turkey ties will be discussed.
The report said Turkey's stance on various issues has been calm and constructive since December 2020, and its positive steps were welcomed by the bloc. But it added that a de-escalation process on tensions between Turkey and Greece remains fragile, and time is needed to make a judgment about the sustainability of the process.
“Since last December, Turkey has shown a calmer, more constructive attitude on various issues, including in its bilateral relations with several EU member states. These are positive and welcome steps forward,” the joint communication titled “State of play of EU-Turkey political, economic and trade relations” said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has further enhanced cooperation between Turkey and the EU.
The EU needs to come up with a number of potential areas of cooperation to enable a progressive approach to further enhance the current momentum, the report said, as it highlighted that the bloc needs more time to judge whether Turkey’s positive approach is “sustainable and credible.”
The report continued by listing a number of suggestions, which included a more effective and mutually beneficial implementation of the 2016 Turkey-EU migrant deal, strengthening the already-substantial economic relations, including the modernization and expansion of the current Turkey-EU Customs Union trade deal signed in 1995.
In March 2016, Ankara and Brussels signed an agreement to reduce the number of migrants taking the dangerous Aegean Sea route to Europe and to find a solution for the influx of migrants heading to EU countries.
Under the deal, Turkey was promised 6 billion euros ($6.77 billion) in financial aid to be used by Ankara to finance projects for Syrian migrants. Yet, Turkey did not undertake the difficult task of shouldering increasing migration from Syria only for the sake of financial assistance but has also demanded visa liberalization for Turkish citizens; likewise, the customs union was to be updated. Turkish authorities state that almost five years have passed since the signing of the deal and that it needs an update in accordance with current conditions.
“This would also provide a guiding framework for economic reforms in Turkey. The EU Member States should agree on the negotiating directives and authorize the Commission to open negotiations for this modernization, provided that Turkey takes concrete steps in resolving the current trade irritants,” the report said.
“Keeping communication channels open is useful – not least to support Turkey’s economic and sectorial reform commitments. Previously suspended high-level dialogues could thus be relaunched, on the economy, energy, transport, political developments, foreign and security policies, and initiated on other new topics, e.g. the green deal/climate, internal security, inter-faith relations and culture,” the report added.
EU leaders at the December summit asked Borrell to report on how to advance relations with Turkey. Based on the report, the EU leaders will also address migration and the renewal of the EU-Turkey migrant deal. Last week, Borrell said it was necessary to strike a new deal because the 2016 agreement had "produced tangible results" and "led to a significant decrease of loss of human lives, a reduction in irregular crossing and improved the situation of refugees and migrants in Turkey."
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also stated last week that Turkey expects concrete results that will pave the way for further enhancement of ties following the EU summit on March 25-26.
EU foreign ministers welcome Turkey report
EU foreign ministers welcomed the new report on the bloc's future relationship with Turkey, Borrell also said Monday after the presentation of the report.
Speaking at a press conference after a meeting of EU foreign ministers, the top EU diplomat said the report provided a good basis "for the debate of EU heads and governments," looking ahead to the EU summit this Thursday and Friday.
"The report recognizes that since last December, we have seen some signs and steps towards the de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean from the Turkish leadership," Borrell said, referring to a maritime dispute between Turkey and Greece.
However, he also noted some concerns over the recent domestic situation in Turkey, saying: "These kinds of actions take Turkey out of the European path."
Last week, Turkey's top prosecutor filed an indictment seeking to shut down the pro-PKK Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), calling it an undemocratic party that colludes with the PKK terrorist organization and seeks to destroy the unity of the state. Turkey last week also withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, saying that domestic legislation provides ample protection to women from domestic violence.
Borrell admitted that there is a mix of positive and negative approaches that EU governments had to take into consideration.
But he also stressed that, "We want to have a relationship with Turkey as a candidate country, a neighbor, as an important country with whom we want to have the best relationship, defending the interests and values of member states."
The year 2020 proved particularly difficult for relations between Turkey, which remains an official candidate for EU membership, and the EU, as tensions increased over maritime zones and drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.
EU leaders during a meeting in Brussels on Dec. 10 decided to draw up a list of Turkish targets to sanction over what they described as Ankara’s “unilateral actions and provocations” in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Ahead of the summit, Greece called for additional sanctions, an EU arms embargo on Turkey and the suspension of the Turkey-EU customs union, but during discussions, a majority of European leaders opposed severe economic sanctions, opting for a softer approach, creating space for a positive agenda.
Turkish leaders have repeatedly stressed that Ankara is in favor of resolving outstanding problems in the region through international law, good neighborly relations, dialogue and negotiations. Instead of opting to solve problems with Ankara through dialogue, Athens has, on several occasions, refused to sit at the negotiation table and opted to rally Brussels to take a tougher stance against Turkey.
Since then, the rhetoric on all sides has mellowed dramatically as Turkey and the bloc voiced their intent to "turn a new page." Turkey has recently reiterated that it is part of the bloc and sees its future in the EU, while it will continue efforts toward full membership. Turkish officials have also said that they hope for progress in 2021 and expect the bloc to take definitive action to this end.
Turkey has a very long history with the union and the longest negotiation process. The country signed an association agreement with the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC), in 1964, which is usually regarded as a first step to eventually become a candidate.
Applying for official candidacy in 1987, Turkey had to wait until 1999 to be granted the status of a candidate country. For the start of the negotiations, however, Turkey had to wait for another six years, until 2005, a uniquely long process compared with other candidates.
On top of the slow negotiations, another challenge threatened Turkey’s ascension into the union when in 2016 the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) attempted a coup, forcing the country to declare a state of emergency. Unhappy with the move, the European Parliament on Nov. 24, 2016, stated that it would temporarily “freeze” the negotiations, which has kept the process at a standstill ever since.
EU foreign policy chief highlights dialogue with Turkey
The EU will engage in talks with Turkey on outstanding issues in the region, according to the EU’s foreign policy chief.
“On the eastern Mediterranean, we will pursue dialogue with Turkey on outstanding issues,” Josep Borrell said in his book, European Foreign Policy in Times of COVID-19.
Recalling that EU leaders tasked him to organize a multilateral conference on Eastern Mediterranean, he wrote: “We clearly prefer the path of constructive relations but the political line is clear: in case of renewed actions by Turkey that breach international law, the EU will use options at its disposal.”
Borrell said Turkey will continue to be an important partner on a number of issues. “This should enable us to emerge from a dynamic of dangerous confrontation with this great neighbour.”
He stressed that Turkey wants to be seen as a country that cannot be excluded from sharing energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean and one with a political solution in Libya.
Borrell said the bloc’s main topics of foreign policy were Turkey and Eastern Mediterranean last year.
“And today still, it is clear that the European Union will not be able to achieve stability on the continent unless it finds the right balance in its relations with Turkey and the Russian Federation,” he said.
He said that when he came to the position, he knew that restoring relations with Turkey was going to be one of the difficult issues, and added that Ankara’s policies on Libya and Syria also do not suit the EU.
Borrell said the 2016 migration deal between Turkey and the EU did not bear expected fruit for both sides.
“Unfortunately, Turkish Navtex notifications and vessels, such as the ‘Oruc Reiss’ and the evocative ‘Barbaross’, had become household names in Brussels,” he said.
Cyprus issue and Turkey-Greece relations were at the center of Turkey-EU relations, Borrell wrote, adding that those issues could be delayed no longer.
“Turkey has become a regional power to be reckoned with and has scored undeniable successes,” he said about the country’s foreign policy. “Unfortunately, in quite a few cases, Turkey’s international agenda is not well aligned with the EU’s and its methods are not those of the EU.”
EU-Turkey deal 'trapped people in endless waiting,' NGO says
Five years ago, the migration deal between the European Union and Turkey was signed. The deal has trapped migrants and refugees on the Greek islands, exacerbating mental health issues and re-traumatizing many, says NGO Intersos.
The aid organization Intersos released a statement on Tuesday (March 16), criticizing the EU-Turkey deal, ahead of the five-year anniversary of its signing.
The deal brought about "a containment policy ... intended to control the crossing of asylum seekers from Turkey to the Aegean islands", Intersos said, which "over the years [has] done nothing but trap people in endless waiting, depriving them of basic human dignity and forcing them to relive the same traumas."
Mental health struggles
This has had "devastating effect" on the mental health of migrants and refugees on the Greek islands, the organization said.
Psychologists from Intersos have reportedly provided mental health support to women at the Kara Tepe camp in Mavrovouni, Lesbos, in recent months.
"These women have been stranded in Lesbos for months, even years. They feel trapped, hopeless, ashamed. Suicidal thoughts and self-destructive behaviours are exacerbated by the hard living conditions in the camp, which produce a strong sense of insecurity, anxiety and oppression. Death is perceived as relief, a way out of their confinement," Intersos said.
Women vulnerable to sexual abuse
The organization said that gender-based violence was common at the camps, and that many girls and women suffer sexual abuse and rape at the camps in Greece. "A basic level of security cannot be ensured, and offenders and perpetrators can easily have access to their lodgings," Intersos writes. "[The women's] mental health conditions are marked by the constant anxiety and fear that such incidents could happen again."
Intersos mentioned the stories of several of their patients in their statement.
They said that one of their patients, 22-year-old Farida, was raped at Moria camp in front of her two children -- after she had fled her country to escape abuse.
Another woman, Mariam, fled Afghanistan with her brother Masoud after their stepfather tried to abuse her, Intersos said. According to the organization, both siblings are in dire need of psychological support -- Mariam presents symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), while Masoud presents symptoms of psychosis. According to Intersos, Mariam refused further psychological treatments because her brother had not been able to receive any therapy.
EU-Turkey pact 'inhumane'
"The EU-Turkey Statement is an inhumane agreement that has brought pain, death and suffering to thousands of human lives trapped here in Greece," said Apostolos Veizis, executive director of Intersos Hellas. "This accord represents the persistent will of European governments to continue to pursue containment measures, rather than finding practicable humanitarian solutions."
Cesare Fermi, Intersos' European director, called on the European Union to "make an effort to pursue new migratory policies, focused on people's protection and integration."
The refugee deal between the European Union and Turkey, also known as the March 18 statement, helped halt illegal immigration, while many lives were saved thanks to the agreement, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Thursday.
Since the accord, the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Greece has fallen sharply.
In 2015, at the height of the crisis, 856,000 crossed the Aegean Sea. This figure dropped to 173,000 the next year and to only 30,000 in 2017.
In 2020, likely because of the coronavirus pandemic, just 10,000 crossed.
The EU should support Turkey for hosting more than 4 million refugees, Borrell highlighted, speaking after visiting the command center of Operation Irini, the EU initiative to implement a U.N. arms embargo on Libya.
"This agreement is still valid and its implementation should continue," he added.
Most of the EU funding under this agreement goes directly to immigrants, not the Turkish government, he noted.
Earlier in the day, Borrell met with Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and held a press conference.
"On Turkey, also we have a momentum, a good momentum, following their exploratory talks with Greece," Borrell said.
"I will present a report to the European Union leaders where I will outline current trends and suggest a way ahead to consolidate a constructive attitude while at the same time being ready to take measures if necessary," he stressed.
Borrell and Maio will discuss the report with other European Union colleagues during the EU foreign ministers' meeting, which will be held Monday.
Turkey has been a key transit point for asylum-seekers aiming to cross into Europe to start new lives, especially those fleeing war and persecution.
Turkey hosts nearly 4 million refugees, more than any other country in the world. Ankara says it has so far spent more than $40 billion (TL 290.89 billion) from its own resources for the refugees and has stressed that the EU should do more to share the burden.
The European Union's asylum policy fails to meet international protection standards, several human rights organizations argued on Thursday on the five-year anniversary of the EU-Turkey migration agreement.
The organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Oxfam, said the bloc's containment policies at the external borders of the EU were often in breach of human rights.
While Turkey escalates efforts to rescue migrants, Greece makes headlines for its illegal pushback and mistreatment of the migrants.
Turkey has accused Greece of large-scale pushbacks and summary deportations without access to asylum procedures, which is a violation of international law. It also accuses the EU of turning a blind eye to what it says is a blatant abuse of human rights.
The EU’s new plan on migrants: Visa restrictions to third countries that refuse readmissions
The European Commission is preparing to implement visa restrictions to third countries that refuse readmissions of migrants.
The European Commissioner for Promoting the European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, stated that they are trying to find ways to incentivize non-EU countries to readmit migrants.
Their plan involves using the visa card to pressure the political elite in countries with high numbers of migrants.
Schinas stated that they are planning to cooperate with third countries through the ‘visa code’, which is a new tool they are developing to be used with 35 countries. He noted that they are at the first stage of discussions and are planning to propose action plans in June. He underlined that this is a significant new tool to construct the external dimension of their migration policy.
3 migrants dead in the Aegean Sea, 3 rescued and 1 lost
Turkish Coast Guards found the dead bodies of 3 migrants in the Aegean sea near Çeşme, İzmir. They rescued another 3 migrants, and are still searching for another migrant.
According to the rescued migrants’ statement, the migrants were trying to reach the Greek island Kos. Greek Coast Guard handcuffed them with plastic handcuffs, took their belongings, and pushed them back into the sea directly without a lifeboat. They noted that they were 7 people, and the Turkish Coast Guards are still searching for the remaining migrant.
The rescued migrants were brought to the Çeşme Alper Çizgenakat Public Hospital to be treated.
Turkey expects concrete results from upcoming EU Summit: Erdoğan
Turkey expects concrete results that will pave the way for further enhancement of ties following the EU Summit on March 25-26, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said following a virtual meeting with EU chiefs on Friday.
In a statement, the Communications Directorate said that the leaders discussed strengthening Turkey-EU relations, regional issues as well as mutual steps to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Erdoğan spoke with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council head Charles Michel ahead of an EU leaders’ summit next week, where Turkish-EU ties are set to be discussed.
Also present at the 45-minute meeting were Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Communications Director Fahrettin Altun, and Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın.
Erdoğan told the EU leaders that he expects next week’s EU summit to yield results on Turkey-EU ties paving the way for concrete action, the statement added.
He added that he told the bloc’s leaders that a report on Turkish-EU relations to be submitted to the summit should reflect objective, constructive views on the future of Turkey-EU ties.
Pointing to the importance of restarting high-level dialogue to strengthen cooperation, Erdoğan said that updating the 2016 migrant deal between Turkey and the bloc could form the basis for a positive agenda.
Erdoğan also underlined the rising burden and pressure on Turkey from asylum seekers and irregular migration, the statement said.
Again proposing a conference on the Eastern Mediterranean, he said the EU should not allow Athens and the Greek Cypriots to abuse the EU summit on the pretext of “union solidarity.”
Realistic options for the Cyprus issue must be discussed instead of models proven to be ineffective to both sides on the island, Erdoğan said, according to the statement, referring to proceeding now on the basis of two sovereign states.
Turkey maintains and supports stability and cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean despite Athens’ and the Greek Cypriots’ provocations and aggression, he added.
On the EU side, von der Leyen and Michel said in a joint statement that the leaders discussed “the follow up to the December European Council, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, including the forthcoming Cyprus settlement talks, and the state of play of EU-Turkey relations.”
“The EU side underlined the importance of sustained de-escalation and of further strengthening confidence building to allow for a more positive EU-Turkey agenda,” the statement added.
The EU is closely following U.N. efforts to restart peace talks over Cyprus in which Turkey is a key player.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will convene an informal meeting in April involving main international actors Greece, Turkey and Britain to explore how to break the deadlock. Erdoğan said "realistic and new options must be discussed."
“The presidents also exchanged views on the situation of Syrian refugees hosted in Turkey, as well as the wider regional situation including Libya and Syria.”
The statement said the EU chiefs discussed a “possible visit” to Turkey after next week’s European summit. where leaders of the member states are to discuss the state of relations with Ankara, among other issues.
EU summit, 2016 migrant deal
The meeting came ahead of next week’s EU leaders’ summit when EU heads of state and government will discuss the future of the bloc’s relationship with Ankara, including the 2016 migration deal.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell suggested on Monday that the deal to stop irregular flows of asylum seekers to Europe and improve the conditions of Syrian refugees in Turkey would be renewed “in some form.”
Borrell, who is due to submit a report on Turkey-EU ties to next week’s summit, said the pact “has been very much criticized, but it seems that this statement has produced tangible results. It has led to a significant decrease of loss of human lives, a reduction in irregular crossing, and improved the situation of refugees and migrants in Turkey.”
But Ankara has frequently accused the EU of failing to deliver on its promises under the pact.
The bloc in December 2020 concluded the final contracts under the €6 billion ($7.3 billion) refugee support package.
But, the amount the EU actually spent for the needs of the Syrian refugees remains below €4.5 billion ($5.4 billion) as of March 2021, according to EU figures.
The bloc also promised to enhance political and economic cooperation with Ankara by accelerating Turkey’s EU membership talks, modernizing the EU-Turkey Customs Union, and allowing visa liberalization for Turkish nationals within the Schengen area.
These steps were blocked by several member states due to bilateral problems and tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey has been a key transit point for asylum seekers aiming to cross into Europe to start new lives, especially those fleeing war and persecution.
Turkey hosts nearly 4 million refugees, more than any other country in the world.
Ankara says it has so far spent more than $40 billion from its own resources for the refugees and underlines that the EU should do more to share the burden.
An updated migration deal can revitalise Turkey-EU relations
This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Turkey-EU statement on migration, which was designed to stop the flow of irregular crossings into Europe and to provide shelter and protection for Syrian refugees. This agreement dramatically reduced the number of irregular immigrants, stopped people smugglers and saved many lives. But it was never fully implemented because of the EU’s bureaucracy and the narrow political agenda of some member states. It is time to substantially revise the deal, not only to stop the next flow of migrants but also to revitalise Turkey-EU relations. A new deal could provide the basis for a new spirit in Turkey-EU relations. This, in turn, could herald a new geopolitical dynamism for our respective regions as well as for the transatlantic alliance. I hope this will be the strategic perspective of European leaders as they prepare for the EU summit on 25-26 March.
The migration deal is only one of the many key items on the larger Turkey-EU agenda, but it is an important one. Its effectiveness depends on addressing three interrelated issues.
Firstly, we must acknowledge and address the root cause of the problem, the Syrian war. Ten years ago, peaceful protesters asked for freedom, prosperity and dignified treatment from their government. The Syrian regime responded with the systematic use of unspeakable violence, killings, and summary executions. All kinds of war crimes have been committed in the last ten years. The Syrian people have borne the heaviest burden in this conflict. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians died and more than half of the population became refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Syria has been destroyed beyond imagination. The war has been the source of multiple crises including migration, the rise of the Islamic State group and terrorist attacks by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), ethnic and sectarian tensions and regional rivalries with global repercussions. In its tenth year, the Syrian crisis continues unabated. Without a serious and concerted effort by the international community, this war will continue to shake the regional order and subvert international dynamics. Europe cannot delegate such critical issues to the United States alone. It ought to take a more active and prominent role in containing this multi-dimensional crisis.
Secondly, many dynamics have changed over the last five years. When the agreement was signed back in 2016, Turkey had 2.5 million Syrian refugees. Today it has around 3.6 million Syrian refugees and about 400,000 refugees from Afghanistan, Libya, Iran and other parts of the world. The numbers are increasing by the day, and the problems of the refugees are deepening. Turkey is providing aid to about four million refugees within Turkey, mostly through the use of its own resources in terms of food, shelter, education and medical services, and to another five million to six million IDPs on the Syrian side. Overall, Turkey is taking care of around ten million Syrians. Furthermore, the covid-19 pandemic has worsened conditions.
We cannot expect the Syrian or other refugees to remain refugees for the rest of their lives. More political, financial and humanitarian resources must be mobilized to address the migration crisis in an effective, comprehensive and dignified manner. Europe can and must do more to go beyond burden-sharing alone. What we need is serious ownership and leadership in tackling the migration crisis and the root causes behind it.
For almost a decade, the Turkish people have shown immense hospitality and solidarity by hosting millions of Syrian refugees. However, the European attitude, with some notable exceptions, has been one of deferment and denial: “As long as the immigrants are far away from our borders, it is not our problem but someone else’s.” This cannot be the basis of a humane and functional immigration policy. Turning a blind eye to a problem does not make it disappear. What we see on the ground tends to disregard humanitarian values and norms.
Thirdly, and most importantly, an update on the 18 March statement has the potential to revitalise Turkey-EU relations. The statement already has a roadmap with the specific goals of strengthening Turkey’s accession process, starting the process of updating the customs union, revitalising high level dialogue and summits between Turkey and the EU, encouraging visa liberalization for Turkish citizens, better cooperation in the management of irregular migration and the protection of asylum-seekers, and the fight against terrorism. None of these goals is beyond reach. When President Erdoğan met the EU presidents in Brussels last year, these points were also included in the roadmap, which has yet to be implemented.
The EU needs to show leadership and determination to reciprocate Turkey’s positive steps.
Turkey has taken a number of critical steps in recent months to create a positive political climate. On 21 November 2020, President Erdoğan said that “we see ourselves in Europe, not anywhere else, we look to build our future with Europe”. More contacts have been established between Turkish and European leaders to cover a large number of bilateral and regional issues. After much effort, things have been calm in the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey and Greece resumed exploratory/consultation talks. On 3 March, President Erdoğan announced a human rights action plan with many provisions that also contribute to a positive agenda for Turkey-EU relations. Among other areas in Syria, Turkey has been single-handedly protecting over 3 million people in Idlib, despite continuous violations and attacks by the Assad regime with the support of Russia and Iran. In the absence of such protection, several million Syrians would start moving towards Turkey and Europe. It is in Europe’s interest to support Turkey in Idlib and elsewhere in Syria to provide security and stability for hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
These issues are all crucial to advance a positive Turkey-EU agenda and can help bring Turkey and the EU closer. All other alternatives would fail to provide security and prosperity for our citizens. This opportunity should not be squandered on the basis of the whims and narrow political agendas of certain member states.
A new migration deal should build on the achievements of the current agreement but take further steps to address the new challenges that have emerged over the last five years. The processes and mechanisms for delivering financial support to refugees in Turkey and Syria should be expedited. The needs and priorities of refugees and IDPs should be determined in consultation with Turkish and local authorities. Beyond simply providing more funding, the new deal should give the Syrian people a sense of hope and trust.
As we mark the tenth anniversary of the Syrian war and the worst humanitarian crisis in decades, we have to put aside our differences and focus on the real issues. A revised Turkey-EU migration deal together with the main provisions contained therein would go a long way towards addressing the refugee problem and revitalising Turkey-EU relations with a positive agenda. This is how Turkey sees the process. We hope this will be the outlook of the 25-26 March EU summit.
Author: Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesperson and chief advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Five years since the EU-Turkey Joint Declaration with thoughts on updating it
Today marks 5 years since the EU-Turkey Joint Declaration agreed on March 18, 2016 and the need for its review and renewal seems like a one-way road. At least that is what the Turkish side wants, which argues that the situation has changed considerably since the period when the Euro-Turkish joint declaration was signed.
This was also stressed by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in a joint interview with Anadolu Agency and State Television TRT.
“We have sent them our proposal, the draft of our road map. We are now waiting for answers from them”, Çavuşoğlu said, adding that the decision was made with EU Council President Charles Michel to work on a roadmap for Turkey-EU relations. He went on to explain that this map includes the updating of known issues in line with current reality. Çavuşoğlu stressed on the one hand that the positive climate is important for Turkey-EU relations, but on the other hand that Turkey has specific expectations from the EU, such as updating the Customs Union, visa liberalization, updating the agreement on immigration and the fight against terrorism.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell told a news conference on Monday that it was in the Union’s interest to support Turkey’s efforts to host refugees and stop illegal immigration, adding that The EU will seek to renew the 2016 immigration agreement with Turkey.
EU Member States and institutions should first discuss with each other and then with Turkey the renewal of the commitment that ended on March 18, 2016, Borrell noted.
The agreement “has been widely criticized”, but has yielded tangible results. “This has led to a significant reduction in loss of life, a reduction in illegal crossings and an improvement in the situation of refugees and migrants in Turkey”, Borrell said.
The EU foreign policy chief also stressed that the refugees are still in Turkey and “continue to need our support”.
The Union’s future relationship with Turkey will be based in part on the renewed agreement, he said, adding that “it is in our common interest” to “prevent illegal immigration, avoid loss of life” and “help Turkey support the burden of hospitality for such a large number of people in its territory”.
Berlin considers the EU-Turkey agreement a success
The EU-Turkey agreement signed five years ago is a success, according to the German federal government. “This agreement aims to limit immigration to Greece, through Turkey. “Both sides have respected the agreement and implemented it together”, Deputy Government Spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said in Berlin on Wednesday.
Demmer also said that the “deadly business model” of traffickers in the Aegean had been effectively combated. The number of people entering Greece illegally has decreased significantly, as has the number of deaths in the Aegean.
Demmer recalled that Turkey has received 3.6 million refugees from Syria, whom it cares for with EU support. “Turkey deserves great recognition for this”, she said. In this case, the country proved to be a “very reliable partner”. Thanks to EU financial support, the situation of migrants welcomed by the country has significantly improved.
More than 1.8 million people received support for their daily living, 660,000 children were able to attend school, and more than 14 million medical visits have already taken place. “So this is a very good investment of funds”, Demmer said.
The EU and Turkey, a major transit country, signed the agreement on March 18, 2016, under pressure from a large influx of refugees.
The agreement stipulates, among other things, that Turkey is taking action against illegal immigration to the EU and that Greece may repatriate migrants who have entered the Aegean islands illegally.
In return, the EU takes on a Syrian refugee from Turkey for every Syrian who returns and supports the country financially in caring for refugees.
Critics point out that Greece is overloaded with the care of people arriving in the Aegean islands. There are camps there, where migrants still live partly in miserable conditions. The infamous
Moria camp on Lesvos was destroyed by fire in September 2020.
The future of Turkey-EU relations discussed at the workshop
‘The New Era in Eurkey-EU Relations’ workshop was organized by the Security and Foreign Policy Council of Turkish Presidency. The debuty chairmain of the Security and Foreign Policy Council of Turkish Presidency Ibrahim Kalin chaired the workshop.
Council members, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Faruk Kaymakci, Deputy Minister of Justice Yakup Moğul, Deputy Minister of Trade Gonca Yılmaz Batur, academicians, representatives of think tanks and experts on the subject attended the workshop.
The efforts to create a positive agenda in the relations and what could be done for a long-term wellbeing were discussed at the workshop. It was emphasized that EU membership is a strategic priority for Turkey and that the EU should do its part.
It was also underlined that the Human Rights Reform Plan that President Erdogan announced on March 3rd will also contribute to the positive agenda in EU-Turkey relations.
The revision of the Migration Deal, modernization of the Customs Union, revitalization of Turkey’s EU accession process, opening of new chapters, continuation of the EU-Turkey High Level Dialogue mechanism, and progress on the visa liberation were evaluated.
It was also discussed that Turkey and the EU should cooperate on the issues of terror, migration, racism, xenophobia, and protests resulting from regional crises.
Turkey Calls for Genuine Cooperation From the EU for Visa Liberalisation Talks
The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu asserts that improvements regarding Turkey’s visa liberalisation with the European Union could be achieved if the latter genuinely commit to the issue.
The Minister made such comments in a joint press conference with the Slovak homologue Ivan Korcok, held on March 16, 2021.
“We expect sincere cooperation from the EU, especially when it comes to the fight against terrorism. Our recent reforms will contribute to a new era in Turkey-EU ties,” Çavuşoğlu said in the conference.
The EU visa liberalisation policy enables third-country citizens who have a biometric passport to be able to enter the Schengen area for three months, within 180 days, without a visa.
Turkey’s attempt to reach an agreement on visa-free travel to the Schengen Area for its citizens started in the first summit between Turkey and the EU, which took place on November 29, 2015.
In this event, a memorandum was issued, stating that:
the negotiations regarding the membership would be revived
anti-terrorism cooperation would be strengthened
summits would be carried out on a regular basis
close collaboration will continue through senior mechanism at economic, energy, and political levels
the EU will provide financial support for Syrian refugees in Turkey
the customs union deal will be updated
Furthermore, at a summit held on March 18, 2016, which represented the third meeting between Turkey and the EU, the visa issue was brought up again, SchengenVisaInfo.com reports.
Nevertheless, for the process to begin on the planned date, the European Commission had to submit the third and the last report regarding the visa progress and make an offer to the EU Council and European Parliament in May 2016 at the latest.
During the meeting in Brussels on December 10, 2020, the EU leaders decided to impose more sanctions on Turkey due to Eastern Mediterranean tensions. Although Greece, the Greek Cypriot administration, and France have drawn a tough line on Turkey, the other EU states, such as Germany, have been keeping a more diplomatic approach. Consequently, the bloc decided to postpone the sanctions.
Last month, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Turkey is prepared to establish a positive long-term plan with the EU. He added that Turkey’s main priority is its future in Europe, hoping to start fresh with the bloc.
Except for Brussels and Ankara’s bilateral relationship, the four expected dominating topics include the update of the migrant deal with the EU, visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, the update of the customs union with the EU, and the proposal of Turkey for an Eastern Mediterranean conference.
Earlier in December 2020, the European Union signed the last contract, under the €6 billion budget of the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, in order to help refugees cover their basic needs.
5 years on, stalled EU Turkey migrant deal remains a model
Five years after it was signed, the widely-criticized deal between the European Union and Turkey aimed at preventing migrants from entering Greece no longer works, but the Europeans insist it has served them well and will do so again. Not only that, they want to do similar deals in northern Africa.
Recent signals from Brussels and Ankara suggest that an arrangement will be found to resuscitate the March 2016 “EU Turkey Statement” — which reduced migrant arrivals into the Greek islands to a relative trickle in a couple of years — and an update of its terms is likely.
“I think it should continue to be implemented and continue to be the key framework for cooperation on migration,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday, a week before he submits a report to a summit of the 27-nation bloc’s leaders on the troubled state of EU-Turkey ties.
For Borrell, the deal saved lives, stopped most people trying to cross the Aegean Sea to islands like Lesbos and Samos, and improved the circumstances of refugees in Turkey. But for aid groups, it created open-air prisons where thousands have languished in squalid conditions while others were blocked in Turkey.
Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s EU office, said that five years on, “15,000 women, men and children remain trapped in overcrowded camps.” She said it highlights the EU’s willingness to strike deals “based purely on political convenience with little regard for the inevitable human cost.”
The International Rescue Committee’s Imogen Sudbery says it’s sparked a mental health emergency.
“It has become crystal clear that outsourcing the EU’s migration management to non-EU countries is neither a humane, sustainable or workable solution,” she said.
The agreement was drafted in a panic after the arrival of well over 1 million people in Europe in 2015, many of them Syrians and Iraqis fleeing conflict, sparked one of the EU’s biggest ever political crises as countries bickered over how to manage the arrivals.
Under it, the EU offered Turkey up to 6 billion euros ($7.1 billion) in aid for Syrian refugees on its territory, visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and fast-track EU membership talks to persuade Ankara to stop tens of thousands of migrants setting out for Greece.
It all involves some legal sleight of hand; Europe’s top court has no jurisdiction over its terms.
It was a one-for-one arrangement. For every migrant that Turkey took from the Greek islands, a Syrian would be resettled from Turkey to the EU. Since March 2016, according to EU figures, Turkey took 2,140 people, plus 601 under an arrangement with Greece, while the EU resettled 28,621 people.
The impact of the agreement was immediate. Arrivals from Turkey plummeted within two years, but the disputes among EU countries continue today.
The deal itself ground to a standstill a year ago as the coronavirus spread and after Turkey, angered by a lack of EU support for its invasion of northern Syria, gave approval for thousands of migrants to leave, sparking clashes at the Greek border.
More than 3,000 people who were in Greece have found new homes in 13 European countries since April. None have been sent to Turkey.
Still, the money continues to pour in — indeed the EU recently extended two programs for Syrian refugees in Turkey worth almost half a billion euros (nearly $600 million). The money doesn’t go to the government, but the migrants’ spending will flow into the Turkish economy.
The visa and accession talks, however, have been at a standstill for years and are unlikely to budge.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Tuesday blamed the holdup there on “political motives.”
“Turkey has fulfilled all of its obligations since 2016,” Cavusoglu said, and he encouraged the Europeans to respond to Turkey’s proposals to upgrade the agreement, which he said includes support for refugees willing to go back to Syria.
“We now need to ensure the Syrians’ voluntary, secure and honorable return and we have to meet the basic humanitarian needs of those who return,” he said.
That leaves the EU in a bind. The Europeans don’t consider Syria a safe country to send refugees. But Turkey has maneuvered itself to the center of Europe’s interests. It plays a role in Syria and Libya — another source of many migrants — and is a key player in talks on the divided island of Cyprus resuming next month.
Despite the challenges, EU foreign and interior ministers discussed again this week how to develop better “partnerships” with other countries that migrants leave or transit, mostly in Africa, using trade, development assistance, investment, education and visas as carrots and sticks.
Dutch Greens EU lawmaker Tineke Strik told The Associated Press that the EU-Turkey deal “opened the door to shift responsibility for the reception of refugees to countries outside Europe. This outsourcing increases the risk of human right violations of refugees, without the EU taking action against it. More of the same deals means more repression of refugees and less solidarity.”
Turkey migration deal a 'stain on EU rights record'
At the end of another interminable EU summit in March 2016, the tired heads of government announced that they had found a compromise: The EU-Turkey refugee deal was hailed as a success of EU politics. The goal had been to reduce the number of people coming into Greece via the Eastern Mediterranean migration debate. According to the European Commission, over 850,000 had arrived in Greece in 2015.
The solution seemed simple: The idea was that the Greek authorities should examine whether people arriving in Greece irregularly had a right to asylum in the EU. Those who did not would be returned to Turkey. In return, the EU would accept the same number of Syrian asylum seekers waiting in Turkish refugee camps and resettle them around the bloc. The EU also to provide some €6 billion in funds to Turkey to support the almost four million Syrian refugees in Turkey.
After the deal was announced, the EU was criticized for selling out with regard to its humanitarian values and outsourcing its migration policy to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, just as he was becoming increasingly authoritarian. However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was widely seen as the political driving force behind the deal, defended it in the Bundestag.
She said that there was nothing other that could be done when it came to maritime borders than to discuss the matter with neighbors, if one didn't want to let people drown and give human traffickers the upper hand. "The agreement with Turkey is a precursor for other agreements of this sort,” she said, such as with Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, if one day it had a reasonable government, and other countries if necessary.
Turkey takes in most refugees in the world
Such other agreements failed to emerge, but the deal with Turkey has had some results. In 2020, the number of people arriving irregularly in Greece had fallen to about 15,000. "In the past year, over 90% of Syrians, who have been living in Turkey as refugees for years, stayed there,” explained Gerald Kraus, an expert on migration who was one of the architects of the deal. "Since 2014, Turkey has been the country with the most refugees in the world. It has taken in three times as many Syrians as the whole EU.”
"Thanks to support from the EU hardly any Syrians have made the journey because their children are going to school in their hundreds of thousands and they have access to a health and social system.”
However, many refugees in Turkey continue to live in poverty and not all of the children have access to education. Moreover, the funds from the deal have been used up and aid organizations need more.
Failed migration policy in EU
There are also other reasons why fewer people are arriving in the EU via Greece. Some are using other routes, for example traveling via Libya and Italy, but this is also becoming more difficult. Spain has made special deals with Morocco to send people back to Africa if necessary. Since the Balkan Route was closed and the EU-Turkey deal came into effect, there have been many allegations of human rights violations on the EU's external borders.
According to the Greek authorities' estimates, fewer than 3,000 refugees have been returned to Turkey. The coronavirus pandemic brought the resettlement of Syrian migrants from Turkey to EU member states, which was already very slow, to a complete standstill.
So far, the EU has failed to reform asylum policy to such an extent that migration is regulated in a long-term manner. All attempts have failed because of the idea to redistribute people arriving in the EU among different member states, with resistance coming largely from certain member states in central and eastern Europe.
Shocking conditions in Greece
Moreover, the deal did not envisage that many Greek islands would end up being a final destination for thousands of people. The Greek authorities are unable to process all the asylum applications. Knaus said that it was not realistic to expect "a country which receives more applications per capita than the whole EU to decide quickly who should go back.”
The shocking conditions on the islands, where there were sometimes 40,000 people living in camps designed just for a few thousand became the symbol of the EU's failed migration policy.
A devastating fire at the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos last year drew the world's attention to the humanitarian disaster.
While Greece's new conservative government has sharpened its tone and measures against refugees, Brussels has continued to give millions in funds, but has left Athens largely alone with the crisis.
'A stain on EU rights record'
"The EU-Turkey statement is a stain on the European Union's human rights record and people in search of protection (...) continue to pay the price," said Imogen Sudbury from International Rescue Committee (IRC), who explained that there were still 15,000 people trapped on Greek islands in camps, which were overcrowded and did not have enough provisions. She said that people there were suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts.
"Given the scale of this avoidable crisis, it has become crystal clear that outsourcing the EU's migration management to non-EU-countries is neither a humane, sustainable or workable solution,” she said.
In spring 2020, President Erdogan resorted to blackmail and transported thousands of people to the Greek border. Athens reacted by blocking the border and refusing to allow people to enter. The brutality showed once again that the EU had failed to protect human rights.
Turkey called for the deal to be extended and more funds. It also criticized the fact that promises to ease visa regulations and to introduce a new customs deal were not fulfilled. The EU argued that Ankara's anti-democratic course and the increase of human rights violations in Turkey were one reason for the delay.
The subject of migration will be on the agenda at the upcoming EU summit later this month. Meanwhile, the EU-Turkey deal was tacitly extended until next year.
There are an estimated 100,000 refugees in Greece, some of whom have been there for years. There seems to be very little will to resettle them elsewhere in the EU.
What happened to the Syrian refugees who got stuck in Turkey?
The first to arrive at Gaziantep’s Irani Bazaar are the bakers, lighting their saj grills before the sun comes up to make Syrian flatbread for the day’s customers. The smell of sesame and fresh unleavened bread fills the neighbourhood in the Anatolian city by the time the street’s other traders arrive to open their shops.
When the bakery doors open at 7am, a nearby restaurant owner stops by to pick up the huge round sheets for traditional Syrian breakfast: dipped in za’atar and olive oil, or served alongside beans, falafel, fatteh and hummus. Shopkeepers along the length of the street take bites in between sips of Turkish tea, Nescafé or thick Arabic coffee as they prepare for the work ahead.
As the rest of the city wakes up, the sound of Arabic is everywhere, competing with the noise of Gaziantep’s traffic. Despite the name, Irani bazaar isn’t Iranian: it’s the heart of the city’s Syrian community.
“The street has changed in many ways. We picked Irani bazaar and the neighbourhoods around, originally, because the rent was cheap. Most of the shop owners are Syrians now. It’s the major centre for us,” said 52-year-old Alaa al-Dein Shasho, who recently gave up his grocery shop on the street to start an air conditioning business like the one he had at home in Aleppo.
“Our chicken, legumes, vegetables, spices, they all come from Irani bazaar,” said Lubna Helli, who owns Lazord restaurant, a few streets away.
“The market reminds us of Syria, but specifically the markets of Aleppo,” she said. “When you go there, everybody speaks Arabic, most of the shopkeepers are from Aleppo and it’s full of Syrian people. It is like home.”
Gaziantep is closer to Aleppo – just 60 miles away – than any Turkish city, and the two ancient trading posts share many cultural and historical ties. But for most of the Syrian community here, Aleppo now might as well be another planet.
When Syrians fled their country to escape the horrors of the now 10-year-old war, it gave Europe its biggest refugee crisis since the Holocaust. About one million Syrians have since settled on the continent, the majority in Germany, Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands.
In 2016 the EU struck a deal with Turkey: in exchange for €6bn (£5.1bn) in aid, Ankara agreed to stop refugees and migrants making the deadly crossing over the Mediterranean and the long walk through eastern Europe. Syrians and others who have made it over the sea to Greece since the deal are now mostly held in camps.
As a result, Turkey is far and away the world’s biggest refugee host nation, with 3.7 million registered Syrians already, and a population that keeps growing – about 500,000 Syrian children have been born here since the crisis began.
Gaziantep is the centre of this new reality for both Syrians and Turks. The city hosts about half a million Syrians – but while Istanbul has a similar number, newcomers there have been absorbed into a metropolis already home to 17 million people, compared with Gaziantep’s pre-war population of 1.5 million.
Life is still far from easy for Syrians in Turkey, but it is better than Jordan or Lebanon, where refugees are mostly denied the right to work or integrate into society, and hundreds of thousands still live in camps.
For President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in Ankara, the influx of Syrians – at least 110,000 of whom have already obtained Turkish citizenship – represents a promising new bloc of potential voters.
The Gaziantep authorities in particular have been praised for their efforts in helping the two communities integrate, soothing worries about rising rents, stagnating wages and extra pressure on city infrastructure by creating “a model of tolerance and pragmatism”.
But not everyone thought they would end up here. Ahmad al-Taweel, a graphic designer from Damascus, fled to Turkey in 2013. He wanted to make a new life in Belgium, attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Izmir on the Aegean coast five times before giving up and settling in Gaziantep.
“I was desperate to go to Europe. After a year of trying in Turkey I thought I wouldn’t be able to find work or finish my studies here. But the boat sank three times. Once the coastguards sank it on purpose. After failing so many times I had to give up. I thought I was going to die if I kept trying,” the 32-year-old said.
“I am happy in Turkey now. I learned the language, I have a decent income, I got married recently to a Turkish woman. I’ve built myself a good life.
“The refugees who have got stuck in camps in Greece and other places in dire humanitarian conditions, the thousands of people who have drowned … The refugee crisis changed my opinion about European governments, to be honest. I was disappointed to see their real face, which is ugly.”
As EU-Turkey migration agreement reaches the five-year mark, add a job creation element
It has been 10 years since the conflict in Syria began to displace Syrians from their homes into neighboring countries. Since then, their numbers in Turkey have reached 3.7 million. In the absence of any traditional durable solutions — in the form of voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration — the presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey has become protracted, with no end in sight.
This “enduring reality” calls for rethinking the agreement between the European Union (EU) and Turkey that was adopted five years ago this week. Leaders should explore ways of moving it forward, focusing on development in addition to humanitarian assistance. One way to do this is to adopt policy ideas from the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) to improve the prospects of formal employment for refugees and members of their host communities.
Taking Stock of the Deal
Possibly foremost, the 2016 arrangement enabled the EU — as one prominent professor of international refugee law argued — to acquire for itself an “asylum space” outside the EU. Illegal crossings across the Aegean Sea dropped dramatically, from 885,000 in 2015 to about 42,000 in 2017. Turkey remained a “good fence” until, in February 2020, Erdoğan triggered a major humanitarian crisis at the border with Greece, finally enacting his longstanding threat of sending millions of refugees the EU’s way. However, once Greece suspended asylum procedures and forcefully prevented migrants from crossing into Greece, the crisis came to an abrupt end, just as the COVID-19 pandemic compelled the Turkish government to close its borders. During the brief period when the window was open, relatively few Syrians actually took the opportunity to attempt to leave Turkey. As precarious as their lives might be there, many refugees feel integrated: A 2019 survey showed that almost 89% of Syrians feel that they are “completely/almost completely” and “partially” integrated with their host community.
The part of the deal that directly concerns the refugees and their well-being on the ground is the Facility for Refugees in Turkey (FRIT). As of December 2020, all of the 6 billion euros in that fund have been committed and contracted, and 3.9 billion euros disbursed. Though this falls significantly short of the $40 billion that Erdoğan claimed — in a speech before the Global Forum on Refugees in December 2019 — that Turkey had spent, it supports a rich array of programs and projects. They range from cash assistance for the most vulnerable refugees to help them meet their basic needs, to those aiming to improve refugee access to public health services and integrate refugee children into the Turkish national educational system. These have increasingly been accompanied by programs aiming to improve social cohesion between refugees and their host communities, as well as expand access to livelihood opportunities. The implementation of FRIT has also created a poorly acknowledged but impressively constructive public space of cooperation between European entities (member states, the European Commission, European nongovernmental organizations) and international agencies on the one hand, and Turkish stakeholders (government agencies, municipalities, and local civil society) on the other. Although parts of the deal are deservedly criticized, FRIT has been a success and the EU should build on this success.
Moving forward, the prospects of refugees returning to their homes in Syria in large numbers and in line with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) principles looks remote. The picture for resettlement of Syrian refugees do not look very promising either. The UNHCR has projected that there will be more than 420,000 places of resettlement needed for Turkey in 2021. As of the end of November 2020, the UNHCR reported that there were only 3,867 refugee departures from Turkey, compared to 10,286 the previous November. Local integration, in the form of granting Syrian refugees a path for eventual citizenship in Turkey, has not happened either. Granting citizenship to the refugees is a very sensitive issue, with 87% of the Turkish public believing Syrians “should not be given any political rights” and 76.5% against granting citizenship. Not surprisingly, according to the only publicly available figure, there were only 110,000 Turkish citizenships granted to Syrians by the end of 2019.
Against this backdrop, access to decent and sustainable livelihood becomes paramount for refugees, and it is the missing piece today. Two structural problems stand in the way. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), a very large proportion of the approximately one million Syrian refugees at working age are employed in the informal sector. This picture not only leaves Syrians in very precarious work and social conditions, but also exacerbates public resentment driven by falling wages and rising unemployment. Secondly, the Turkish economy is much weaker than it was when refugees began to arrive. According to the World Bank, Turkish GDP per capita dropped from its peak in 2013 ($12,614) to $9,126 in 2019, the latest available year.
The persistent problem of unemployment has now been further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic is also impacting the lives of refugees in diverse and profound ways, including their access to income and their prospects of livelihood opportunities. The Turkish Red Crescent, together with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent, found that 69% of refugees surveyed have lost their jobs during the pandemic.
What to do?
The funds allocated to FRIT have all been committed. In July 2020, the European Parliament authorized almost an additional half a billion euros, and in December the European Council promised “to continue providing financial assistance to Syrian refugees and host communities in Turkey.” However, this promise must still be negotiated internally in the EU and with Turkey. In the meantime, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — after her meeting with Erdoğan to end the border crisis last March — expressed a readiness to explore the “missing elements” from the EU-Turkey deal from 2016 and improve on them. Employment creation would be one such missing element.
One way to achieve this would be to create demand for refugee labor. The GCR suggests exploring “preferential trade arrangements … especially for goods and sectors with high refugee participation” to spur employment both for refugees and locals to help social cohesion. This suggestion is fully in line with trade liberalization through the reduction of tariffs, the expansion or even full elimination of quotas, and the resolution of regulatory obstacles, all of which are key drivers of economic growth and employment. Such economic growth would also help create demand for the skills and labor of refugees and compliment ongoing efforts focused on increasing their employability. In the specific case of Turkey, the European Commission had indeed flagged gaining access to “export markets … and providing preferential export and trading status to specific products” as a “priority action” for improving Syrian refugees’ self-reliance in Turkey. One specific way to put such a policy idea into action would be for the EU to grant concessions that would enable Turkey to expand its agricultural exports to the EU. Such concessions would be tied to the formal employment of Syrian refugees in a manner that meets ILO and EU labor standards.
Win-Win for All
Using trade facilitation to add a job creation element to the EU-Turkey arrangement would be win-win for all. For Turkey, it would enable refugees to stand on their own feet, become productive members of Turkish society, defuse growing public resentment, and reduce the likelihood of crime out of economic desperation, while at the same time sparking some economic growth. Employment is regarded as an effective tool of refugee integration, and integration would reduce the likelihood that refugees would move to the EU, in turn benefitting it. Most importantly, refugees would benefit by being able to replace the precarity of informal employment with the dignity that would come with self-reliance based on sustainable employment. Finally, this would be a concrete manifestation that burden-sharing — in line with the letter and spirit of the GCR and the 1951 Geneva Convention, as it approaches its 70th anniversary — is still alive.
44 migrants pushed back by Greek coast guards have been rescued by Turkish forces near Ayvalik, Balikesir.
The migrants were attempting to reach the Greek island of Lesbos in a lifeboat. Greek forces deflated their boat and pushed them back into the Turkish waters. After they have been rescued, they have been brought to the Cunda Coast Guard Command Centre and were given humanitarian aid.
Not enough bloc commitment 5 years after Turkey-EU migration pact
There is not enough commitment nor enough political will from the European Union side to tackle the ongoing issue of migration, Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın said Tuesday, marking the fifth anniversary of the migration pact Turkey and the bloc signed in 2016.
“The deal failed to produce expected results,” Kalın said, speaking at the web panel of the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) titled “EU-Turkey Statement: Reassessment of the Migration Agreement.”
“No single country can shoulder this huge responsibility alone,” he stated, adding that until today the EU acted as if the migration issue is not its problem unless it is at the bloc’s door.
Kalın underlined that the conditions have changed substantially in the past five years as the deal was mostly concerned with infrastructural support for refugees.
“Needs are different today – educational and health needs have become more prominent while infrastructure problems have been addressed in Turkey,” he pointed out.
“On the Syrian side, more (internally displaced people) IDPs have moved toward the Turkish-Syrian border. They do not feel safe either under Assad regime-controlled areas or under areas controlled by the PYD/YPG,” Kalın said referring to the PKK-led terror groups in Syria.
Kalın further mentioned that around 480,000 refugees have returned to Syria from Turkey to areas under Turkey’s control – from Afrin to Jarablus, Tal Abyad and other places – “but not to areas controlled by the Assad regime, under Russian-Iranian control or PYD/YPG control.”
“We cannot expect refugees to be refugees for the rest of their lives. We need to create conditions to allow them to go back to their own country, but this requires collective work.”
“The EU and its Member States will work with Turkey in any joint endeavor 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 safer,” read the March 18 statement, however, Ankara did not receive the support it expected in this manner and conducted military operations into Syria's north to clear the region of terrorist elements.
Turkey cares for almost 10 million Syrian refugees both within Turkey and Syria, Kalın said.
“We need a revision of statement,” said Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative (ESI).
Saying that Turkey and the EU should again reengage, Knaus stated: “The EU must remember that Turkey still carries a huge burden, a responsibility for the biggest number of refugees in the world. It should put on the table another substantial sum of money to fund education, healthcare and social support for refugees in Turkey.”
“It should engage in a more intense dialogue with Turkey and bring in the U.N. and others on what to do about the ongoing catastrophe of internally displaced Syrians in the northwest of Syria, which is not only a problem of Turkey which is at the border, but should be a humanitarian priority to address by the whole civilized world,” he added.
Most recently, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Turkey representative Philippe Leclerc told Daily Sabah similarly that 10 years on, Syrian refugees, as well as host countries, still face hardships and that Turkey should be supported further.
In September 2015, the image of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi's lifeless body that washed ashore in Turkey sent shock waves across the world.
Six months later, Turkish and EU leaders inked a migration pact under which Ankara was to receive political and financial benefits in return for tackling migration.
However, Brussels did not keep its promises to ease visa regulations and upgrade the customs union.
Shortly after the deal was struck in May 2016, arrivals of irregular migrants in the European Union dropped sharply – but still remain high. Almost 860,000 irregular migrants made their way from Turkey to Greece by sea in 2015, compared to 60,000 in 2019. The numbers dropped to a record low of 9,714 people in 2020 – although this is likely related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Essentially swapping migrants, the EU also promised to accept one Syrian eligible for asylum for every Syrian who was returned to Turkey from the Greek islands without having received asylum. As a result of this, thousands of Syrians have been resettled in the EU, though this pales in comparison to the millions of Syrians Turkey is estimated to be hosting.
By March 2021, only 2,140 migrants have been sent back to Turkey under the pact, also due to the overwhelmed asylum system in Greece that drags procedures on for years.
The deal reduced the number of migrants reaching Europe, while Turkey received most of the 6 billion euros ($7.15 billion) in EU support.
Five years on, the pact is failing as Turkey struggles with the increased number of migrants, while the EU is more divided than ever over its asylum policy.
Turkey is hosting 6 million migrants, with nearly 4 million from Syria, its migration authority says. That's 2 million more than in 2016, a heavy burden on a country that only had 60,000 asylum-seekers in 2011 before Syria's civil war broke out.
The pact nearly collapsed last year when thousands of migrants, mostly Afghans, Pakistanis and Iraqis, amassed at the Turkish border with Greece after Ankara opened its borders for those heading to Europe, fearing more refugees from Syria's Idlib.
The border crisis was interrupted by the outbreak of the pandemic.
Speaking on the March 18 statement, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday during a press conference said that the “statement remains valid.”
Borrell said that the deal should continue to be implemented and continue to be the key framework for cooperation on migration.
“This is an engagement of mutual trust and delivery that requires continuous efforts from all sides. It has been very much criticized, but I think that this statement has produced tangible results. It has led to a significant decrease of loss of human lives, a reduction in irregular crossings, and improved the situation of refugees and migrants in Turkey,” he said.
Borrell highlighted that the bloc will “try to look for a renewal of this common engagement.”
He said that “preventing irregular departures, avoiding losses of lives and helping Turkey to support the burden that it represents to have such a big amount of people on their territory is part of our common interest.”
Borrell added that the statement will be taken into consideration for the upcoming EU leaders meeting to discuss the EU's relations with Ankara and "will be part of our future relationship with Turkey."
Turkey migrant deal great example of EU-NATO cooperation: Stoltenberg
The EU-Turkey migrant deal signed in 2016 is a great example of EU-NATO collaboration, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday.
Speaking at a joint hearing of the European Parliament's security and defense committees, Stoltenberg said that there is a "huge potential to further strengthen the cooperation" between the bloc and the military alliance.
Stoltenberg also urged members of the European Parliament to "push for more ambitious and practical" ways to work with the European Union and NATO, underlining that NATO is the cornerstone of Europe's security.
Stoltenberg pointed out that "more than 90% of EU citizens live in countries that are NATO allies. At the same time, EU member states provide only 20% of NATO's defense spending."
"So, it is obvious that the strong trans-Atlantic bond in NATO remains the cornerstone of Europe's security now and for the future," the NATO chief told lawmakers.
According to the deal, Turkey was promised a total of 6 billion euros ($6.77 billion) in financial aid, which was initially designed to be given to the country in two stages and to be used by the Turkish government to finance projects for Syrian refugees. Visa freedom for Turkish citizens was also a perk of the agreement. In addition, the customs union between Turkey and the EU was to be updated.
In exchange for these promises, Turkey took responsibility for discouraging migration through the Aegean Sea by taking stricter measures against human traffickers and improving the conditions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey. Despite significant developments controlling migration traffic, the EU has not fully delivered on its commitments stated in the deal.
Although the first stage of funding was provided to Turkey, the EU has yet to fulfill the second stage or other provisions such as establishing the visa-free deal for Turkish citizens and updating the customs union trade deal. Turkey currently hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country in the world, and has spent $40 billion through the process, according to official figures.
Ankara has also frequently voiced concerns that years have passed since the deal was made and that conditions have changed, requiring a new strategy to tackle the issue of irregular migration. The bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell confirmed Monday that the EU will request the renewal of the migration pact with Turkey.
Stoltenberg acknowledged the bloc's concerns over some actions by member state Turkey but insisted the alliance was an important platform for resolving disputes involving Ankara.
"I have expressed my serious concerns and we all know there are serious differences and some issues, ranging from the Eastern Mediterranean, the Turkish decision to buy the Russian air defense system S-400 or related to democratic rights in Turkey," Stoltenberg told lawmakers from the European Parliament.
Replying to a question on the dispute between Tukey and Greece over the Mediterranean, Stoltenberg said, "We are an alliance of 30 different powers with different political parties in government, with different history and geography; therefore there are differences."
"But I believe NATO at least can provide an important platform for discussing these issues, raising these issues and having serious debates and discussions about different concerns."
Following a series of technical meetings between the military delegations of Greece and Turkey at NATO headquarters in Brussels last year, a bilateral military de-confliction mechanism was established. The mechanism is designed to reduce the risk of incidents and accidents in the Eastern Mediterranean and includes the creation of a hotline between Greece and Turkey to facilitate de-confliction at sea or in the air.
The two countries initiated exploratory talks to discuss the issues in the Eastern Mediterranean on March 12, 2002, in an effort to find a fair, sustainable and inclusive solution. Talks were regularly held up until 2016, but there have been none since then due to political speculation and the Greek side's reluctance to sit down at the negotiating table. Bilateral discussions continued in the form of political consultations but did not return to the exploratory framework.
Turkey and EU member Greece have been at odds on several issues. Turkey, which has the longest continental coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean, has rejected maritime boundary claims made by Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, stressing that these excessive claims violate the sovereign rights of both Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
Turkish leaders have repeatedly stressed that Ankara is in favor of resolving outstanding problems in the region through international law, good neighborly relations, dialogue and negotiations. Instead of opting to solve problems with Ankara through dialogue, Athens has, on several occasions, refused to sit at the negotiation table and opted to rally Brussels to take a tougher stance against Turkey.
Turkey tells EU to refrain from repeating past mistakes
Turkey's foreign minister on Tuesday called on the EU to be sincere, act strategically and refrain from repeating past mistakes for relations with Turkey to develop further.
Speaking at a joint press conference with his Slovakian counterpart Ivan Korcok in Ankara, Mevlut Cavusoglu commented on Turkey-EU relations, saying that negotiations between Turkey and the EU stand on political motives.
"We only left with the migration deal, and when we look at that, it is clear that Turkey has fulfilled all of its obligations in the context of this agreement since 2016. The EU did not, could not, did not want to [fulfill its obligations]," Cavusoglu said.
Stating that the EU has taken a stance entirely against Turkey in the past year with an understanding of solidarity within the bloc at the expense of conflicting with its values, he said the EU "had to support the unfair policies and maximalist demands of its member countries."
Cavusoglu recalled the leaders' summit last December and said there was a positive environment between Turkish and the EU officials.
"For Turkey-EU relations to further develop, the EU must refrain from repeating past mistakes, be sincere and act strategically," he added.
For his part, the Slovakian foreign minister hailed bilateral relations with Turkey, expressing a will to deepen relations further.
"Turkey is an important ally at the NATO. Not only a partnership, but there is a very important alliance [between Turkey and Slovakia]," Korcok said.
Turkey: 'EU should show leadership in tackling migration issue'
With the EU summit 2021 nine days away, Turkey's presidential spokesman on Tuesday expressed "hope" for the leadership of EU officials in addressing the migration issue at the summit, Anadolu Agency reported.
"As we are approaching the EU summit on March 25-26th, our [Turkey's] hope, the expectation is that the EU leaders would show leadership there, and address this migration issue in a serious manner, in line with the values of the EU, in line with the values and principles of the international conventions," Ibrahim Kalin said at a virtual panel organized by Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA).
Kalin also urged the EU leaders to tackle the migration issue with "a view of the fact that as long as the Syrian conflict continues, the war remains, and the country remains completely shattered."
The EU leaders will discuss the future of EU-Turkey relations during the summit next week. According to EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, the bloc will seek the renewal of the 2016 migration deal with Turkey.Syria has been embroiled in a civil war since early 2011 when the Bashar al-Assad regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests with unexpected ferocity.
According to UN officials, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and more than 10 million displaced over the past decade.
The 2016 deal was reached to stop irregular refugee flows and improve the conditions of Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Turkey is the largest host country for Syrian refugees and provides protection to some 3.6 million people who fled the neighboring country.Kalin said, "the root cause of the migration crisis which led to the signing of the 2016 Turkey-EU migration agreement is this war. And as long as we avoid addressing this root cause, the Syrian war itself, we will not be able to find a lasting sustainable solution to the migration crisis."
Addressing the panel titled EU-Turkey Statement: Reassessment of the Migration Agreement, Kalin stressed that the migration issue has reached "international dimensions" and that "the international community has largely failed the Syrian people in its policy and attitude towards the immigrants."
He criticized the European attitude of "turning a blind eye" on the migration crisis, saying: "We have seen some of the worst attitudes and treatments of the refugees."
Pointing out a surge in the incidents of migrants being pushed by Greek authorities in the recent months, he reaffirmed that such action is a "clear violation of all the international conventions, UN decisions as well as the European values."
Syria's is biggest refugee crisis in decades
He said the EU border agency Frontex is "taking part in these pushbacks and helping the Greek [authorities]."
"The migration crisis is still there, and it will not go away as long as we continue to act in the way that we've been acting over the last four or five years now," Kalin stated.
The Turkish official further said that the dynamics have changed since the signing of the 2016 migration deal, adding: "The needs are different. The educational and medical needs, for example, have become more prominent."
"The issue is not just about putting some more additional money. It's a matter of addressing this issue in a humane way, in a way that will end the conflict, address the root cause of this problem. And the international community, primarily the EU, the US, all of us taking a more resilient, more proactive, effective position to address this issue," he added.
Separately, European Stability Initiative (ESI) head Gerald Knaus at the panel referred to the Syrian migration crisis as "the biggest refugee crisis in the world and has been for decades."
"The last time there were so many refugees from one conflict was in the early 1970s. We also know that of the 10 million additional refugees in the world in the last decade, the number increased from 10 to 20 million between 2010 and 2020, 1/3 of those additional refugees in the world are in Turkey," Knaus said.
Also referring to the pushbacks in the Mediterranean and the Aegean seas, the ESI head said the EU Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights were violated.
"We knew if states are determined to stop migrants, they can do it. But if states are determined to do it in line with the European Convention on Human Rights and the Refugee Convention, then they need partners," he added.
Knaus also urged Turkey and the EU to re-engage while saying that "it means that the EU must remember that Turkey still carries a huge burden or responsibility for the biggest number of refugees in the world.""It should put on the table another substantial sum of money to fund education, health care and social support for refugees in Turkey," he added.
He also urged the EU to have the "same courage and vision with a realistic mutual interest-based and value-driven new agreement" signed five years ago.
Meanwhile, SETA head Burhanettin Duran said Turkey and the EU have "more to develop new levels of mutual understanding and cooperation areas through regional and international mechanisms to provide and sustain long term security economies, stability and humanitarian aid.
"And this is something vital for the future of the European continent, and Turkey as well," he added.
Borrell supports the renewal of the migration pact
Following the meeting on migration among the EU foreign and interior ministers, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell stated that it is necessary to prepare a new deal that resembles the current one.
Borrell said, "The current deal is still active and it should keep being implemented. It should continue to serve as the main framework of our cooperation on migration". Commenting on the criticisms against the deal, he said, "The deal seems to achieve concrete results. There is a substantial decrease in the number of deaths, significant drop in irregular crossings, and an increase in the welfare of the migrants in Turkey. The numbers show it all".
He noted that this matter will be discussed among the member state leaders and the new deal will be a part of the future of their relationship with Turkey. He emphasized that it is in everyone’s interest to prevent irregular crossings, decreasing losses, and supporting Turkey for burden-sharing.
EU mulls visa pressure so African states take back migrants
European Union ministers on Monday debated ways to persuade northern African countries to take back migrants denied entry into the 27-nation bloc, as the EU considers making it more difficult for those failing to cooperate to secure European visas.
Migrants arriving in Europe without authorization routinely lose or destroy their identity documents, or use fake papers, making it hard to work out where they came from and send them home. Sometimes the countries they live in or transit through are reluctant to take them back.
"We have to work for safe and fair and regular migration. We have to put together incentives in order to make third countries accept the people who have to go back, and to create a flow of regular migration," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.
The EU's executive body, the European Commission, has drawn up a list of how well 39 countries cooperated on readmitting their nationals in 2019. Foreign and interior ministers weighed Monday what methods the EU can use to improve things.
Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas said the ministers agreed that the EU's work on migration "has to start beyond our borders," and use policies like trade, development assistance, education, visas and investment.
Schinas said the aim is to develop "tailor-made, comprehensive and mutually beneficial, win-win partnerships with key countries of origin and transit."
The use of visas as leverage is part of the European Commission's overhaul of the EU's failed asylum and migration policy, which was unveiled in September and aims to ensure that more migrants denied entry into Europe are sent home.
Under the EU's visa code, the Commission assesses at least once a year how well countries cooperate on readmitting their nationals. EU member states can also notify the Commission when confronted with "substantial and persistent practical problems" with any country, triggering another assessment.
"It's time not only to talk but also to act," EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said, adding that it's "important that we use this new tool, together with member states, and I am ready to table proposals based on this already this summer."
The arrival of well over 1 million people in 2015, most of them refugees fleeing war in Syria, sparked one of the EU's biggest political crises as countries bickered over how to manage them. Migrant arrivals have since fallen to a relative trickle, but the tensions have never really eased.
Only around 40% of migrants refused entry into the EU are actually sent home.
Monday's meeting came just a few days before the 5th anniversary of an agreement the EU reached with Turkey. The bloc offered billions of euros in assistance to Syrian refugees in Turkey and other incentives to encourage Ankara to stop migrants leaving for Greece.
The EU wants to use the agreement, which has been stalled for a year, as a model to apply to the countries of northern Africa that many people leave or cross when they set out in search of better lives or sanctuary in Europe.
Anniversary of Turkey-EU deal offers warning against further dangerous migration deals: Amnesty
Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the EU-Turkey deal on migration on March 18, Amnesty International called on EU leaders to turn away from failed policies that have resulted in tens of thousands of people being forced to stay in inhumane conditions on the Greek islands and put refugees at risk by forcing them to stay in Turkey.
Amnesty’s call came just days before a meeting of EU foreign affairs and home affairs ministers, held today.
“The EU-Turkey deal has been an abject failure. The EU and its member states have failed to take responsibility for people seeking safety in Europe. They have failed to respect the rights of refugees and migrants and failed to provide alternative safe passage to Europe for people seeking protection,” said Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International’s EU office. “Ministers must prioritize viable solutions that would save lives. Shameful policies such as the EU-Turkey deal and the EU’s reckless cooperation with Libya cannot be the blueprint for future migration deals with other countries.”
On March 18, 2016 the European Council and Turkey reached an agreement aimed at stopping the flow of irregular migration via Turkey to Europe. According to the EU-Turkey statement, all new irregular migrants and asylum seekers arriving from Turkey in the Greek islands and whose applications for asylum had been declared inadmissible should be returned to Turkey. The EU pledged €3 billion in 2016-2017 and another €3 billion in 2018-2019 to Turkey as its part of the deal.
“Five years after the deal was signed, 15,000 women, men and children remain trapped in overcrowded camps on the Greek islands and tens of thousands more have endured stays there. Many are forced to sleep in tents, braving cold weather in conditions so unsafe that some people have died as a result,” Geddie said.
Following the deal, Greece introduced policies forcing people entering through the islands to stay in camps there while they await a decision on their asylum claims.
According to Amnesty, people trying to reach the Greek islands have experienced violence and dangerous pushbacks to Turkey.
Charity groups and media outlets accuse the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) of denying people their right to apply for asylum — which is illegal under EU law and refugee treaties, The Associated Press reported on Sunday.
According to the AP report, some members of the European Parliament (MEPs) said Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri mishandled allegations that the agency was involved in fundamental violations of migrants’ rights. MEPs called for Leggeri’s resignation.
In its statement Amnesty also underlined that Turkey is not safe for refugees and asylum-seekers since it returns people to Syria.
Today Turkey hosts some 4 million refugees, including 3.6 million Syrian refugees – more than any other country.
UN says international diplomacy crucial to end Syria’s war
The U.N. special envoy for Syria said Monday that international diplomacy is crucial to end Syria’s 10-year war and it’s important to establish a new format to bring together key nations with an influence on the conflict, including the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Arab states and the European Union.
Geir Pedersen told the Security Council that Syria “is among the most deeply internationalized conflicts of a generation, with many of the issues that matter most to the Syrians not even in Syrian hands.”
After recent visits to Russia, Syria and Turkey, and virtual talks with other parties on how to move a political process forward, he said he believes it’s time for “quiet diplomacy.”
“In time, we may need to try to put in place a new means of international discussion, a new international format for the necessary diplomacy and cooperation,” Pedersen said in his virtual briefing to the council from Geneva.
Speaking to reporters later, he said he hasn’t yet decided on a format, but “it is important that we establish this new international format in a manner that it brings in all the different parties that have an influence on the conflict.”
Russia, Iran, Turkey and the U.S. are militarily involved in Syria and must be involved in a new international effort in addition to Arab states, the EU, and all five permanent Security Council members which would add China, Britain and France, he said.
Since Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011, there have been many high-level gatherings designed to stop the fighting and guide Syria to a political transition. Destinations included Istanbul, Paris, Rome, Vienna and Geneva, including assemblies with names such as “Friends of Syria” and the “London 11.” In 2016 it was the “International Syria Support Group.” None has made a lasting impact.
Pedersen said it’s still “early days” for the Biden administration and more in-depth discussions are needed with all parties before launching a new international format.
“The key for me is that it is now necessary for all these actors to seriously sit down and develop a Syrian policy based on the understanding that none of them can dictate the outcome on the Syrian conflict,” he said.
Calling it a “grim anniversary,” Pedersen said the Syrian conflict, which has seen an estimated 500,000 deaths, has lasted “roughly the length of World War I and World War II combined.”
“The Syrian people are among the greatest victims of this century,” he said. “They have watched their middle-income country dragged back into de-development and destitution on such a scale that it will take generations to rebuild.”
Pedersen pointed to corruption, mismanagement, sanctions and economic meltdown that have left nine in 10 Syrians living in poverty.
Amid the tragedy, Pedersen said, there has been one “silver lining”: front lines have not shifted for a year since a cease-fire in northwest Syria and there has been “relative calm.” In Syrian terms, that still means shelling and rocket fire along contact lines, airstrikes from Syrian and foreign parties, violent unrest and actions by terrorist groups, he said.
“The greatest danger of all is that the fragile calm unravels, leading to a new storm of all-out conflict and all that it would mean for Syrians, the region and beyond,” he said. “The other danger facing Syria is that even if calm does not collapse, prolonged stasis sets in -- and the Syrian people endure a new decade of desperation, despondency and despair.”
Pedersen said Syrians must negotiate a settlement in a Syrian-led process convened by the United Nations to implement a Security Council resolution adopted in December 2015 unanimously endorsing a road map to peace in Syria approved in Geneva on June 30, 2012 by representatives of the U.N., Arab League, EU, Turkey and all five permanent Security Council members. It calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body, followed by the drafting of a new constitution and ending with U.N.-supervised elections.
But Pedersen said: “I am absolutely convinced that they will not progress far if a Syrian-led process is not supported by a constructive international diplomacy on Syria.”
With very little trust and a lack of confidence among Syrians and among key international rivals, he said, a way must be found “around the `you first’ syndrome that characterizes much diplomacy on Syria.”
“What is needed is to identify with realism and precision -- and to implement in parallel -- mutual, and reciprocal steps-for-steps, step-by-step, from Syrian and international players,” Pedersen said.
He said he discussed his thinking on how to break issues into component parts “and move in lockstep to make steady progress” during his recent visits and conversations.
Pedersen said inroads on unblocking progress on releasing and accounting for detainees,
abductees and missing persons would be “an important humanitarian gesture, a vital confidence-builder, a signal to all Syrians, and a circuit-breaker in the context of international diplomacy.”
Movement on breaking the impasse on drafting a new constitution could also be “a building block of intra-Syrian cooperation,” he said.
A sixth round of talks between the government and opposition “needs to be different from what has gone before,” Pedersen said.
Germany seen in favor of fresh migration pact with Turkey
Berlin is in favor of extending the 2016 migration deal between the European Union and Turkey, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert was quoted by Greece’s state-run Athens-Macedonian News Agency as saying on Monday.
Seibert was responding to a report on Sunday in Germany’s Handelsblatt, indicating that Berlin is in talks with Ankara over the terms of a new migration pact, which Turkey wants to include an expanded customs union with the EU and more freedom on the allocation of funding from Brussels earmarked for refugees.
“The agreement benefits both sides, the member-states of the EU and Turkey,” the ANA-MPA quoted Seibert as saying.
“The main idea is to guarantee the proper protection for refugees in Turkey and to create prospects there so that they have no reason to immigrate to the EU illegally,” he added.
For the German government, he said, “it makes sense to continue this important agreement for both sides.”
EU to seek renewal of 2016 migration pact with Turkey, Borrell says
The European Union will request the renewal of the migration pact with Turkey, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday.
Speaking to reporters following an unofficial meeting with EU foreign and interior ministers in Brussels, Borrell said the migration deal with Turkey was still effective and that it needs to be sustained in the future.
Noting that the agreement needs to serve as the main framework in terms of the EU’s relations with Turkey on cooperation and migration, Borrell said he wants both sides to strive under the scope of the agreement.
“It had been criticized but the agreement led to concrete results,” Borrell said, adding that the number of people losing their lives has dramatically decreased and it has also reduced irregular crossings into Europe.
Borrell also noted that Syrians living in Turkey still need assistance and that the EU leaders, who are planning to hold a meeting to review relations with Ankara, will take into consideration the migration pact when doing so.
“The prevention of irregular migration and the loss of life and supporting Turkey due to its burden is a part of our common interests,” he said, adding that the agreement will be discussed among EU member-states and they would also hold talks with Turkish officials to renew it later on.
The EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson also said they are in favor of maintaining the migration pact, as she noted that some refugees in Turkey would be relocated to EU countries and Turkey would then accept other refugees from Greek islands. However, the Swedish politician said things did not go as planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Around 2,500 to 3,000 refugees have been relocated to EU countries since August, Johansson said.
In March 2016, the EU and Turkey reached an agreement to stop irregular migration through the Aegean Sea, and improve the conditions of more than 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.
The deal has been successful in stemming the flow of migrants and refugees, but the EU’s reluctance to take in refugees from Turkey, and bureaucratic hurdles in transferring promised funds for refugees, have led to sharp criticism from Turkish politicians.
Recently, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the European Union for failing to fulfill its pledge to provide funding for migrants and refugees in Turkey as part of the 2016 migration pact while allocating billions of euros to Greece.
“The EU granted Greece 3 billion euros of support for 100,000 migrants, but it has made no such move for the 4 million migrants in Turkey,” Erdoğan said last month.
The EU had pledged 6 billion euros ($6.5 billion) of aid for the refugees, but so far transferred less than half of that, according to Ankara.
Turkish politicians also criticized its European partners for not fully implementing the 2016 agreement and backing away from their political commitments, including visa liberalization for Turkish citizens traveling to Europe, opening new chapters in the accession process, and negotiations on upgrading the EU-Turkey Customs Union.
Berlin reportedly in talks with Ankara on new migration pact
Berlin and Ankara are in private talks on a revision of the 2016 migration pact between the European Union and Turkey, Handelsblatt said in a report on Sunday.
According to the German paper, the talks are taking place ahead of a planned March 25 meeting of European foreign ministers where Turkish demands may appear on the agenda, amid concerns of a new wave of refugee and migrant arrivals once the pandemic subsides.
These demands include an expansion of the customs agreement, something Berlin is reportedly inclined to accept despite objections from Athens, albeit not within the context of a new migration agreement, Handelsblatt reported.
Ankara is also said to be asking that it be granted more control over how funding from the European Union earmarked for refugees is used, as well as for an EU summit on the issue of migration in July which it seeks to attend.
Citing Greek diplomatic sources, Handelsblatt said that negotiations between Berlin and Ankara are being viewed with “mixed feelings” by Athens, which wants more pressure to be brought on Turkey to hold up its end of the existing agreement from 2016, particularly with regards to returns.
Turkey eyes benefiting from more pre-accession EU funds
Turkey has been seeking to benefit from more pre-accession EU funds for projects amid its harmonization efforts with the bloc, Turkey's industry and technology minister said on Monday.
The financial and technical support provided by these programs will help small-and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) improve their R&D and innovation capabilities and increase their export potential, he noted during an event titled Competitive Sectors Program in the capital Ankara.
Starting Monday, the two-day event aims to promote projects contributing to the targets of the joint industry policy of Turkey and the EU.
Turkey has distributed €800 million ($955 million) in pre-accession EU funds to SMEs, Varank said, adding: "We realized 46 projects worth €520 million across 43 of our cities under the first part of the Competitive Sectors Program in the 2007-2013 period."
"The Gobeklitepe project was one of them and was listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site," he noted.
In the second term of the program between 2014-2020, 41 projects received a total budget of €260 million, he said.
"These include a wide variety of projects, from the development of domestic COVID-19 vaccines and drugs to autonomous vehicles, from the digital game industry to obtaining fuel from algae, from the fight against cancer to digital transformation."
Varank noted that in the second IPA term, SMEs and entrepreneurs in Turkey established partnerships with Europe's leading institutions and participated in large-scale cooperation projects.
Turkey also will continue its technical support for capacity-development projects in the IPA III period between 2021 and 2027, he added.
The EU-backed Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) funds are a financial apparatus for candidate countries and are used towards projects and programs for alignment with the EU acquis, enhancing their capacity for economic and social cohesion.
"Turkey will expand its national investment incentive system in line with areas prioritized by EU Green Deal," Varank also underlined, adding that more funding and technical support would be given to such projects in this area.
"To encourage planned industrialization and protect the ecological balance, we are transitioning to Green Organized Industrial Zones," he said.
Citing the EU's aim of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, Varank referred to a recent document published by the bloc on new industry and SME strategies to realize the ecological and digital transformation of its industry.
"To finance the investments required for this transformation, the InvestEU program was commissioned in the period 2021-2027. This program, which will mobilize resources of approximately €1 trillion, will provide resources and budget guarantees for the investments required for the green and digital transformation," he noted.
Varank added that Turkey is aware of the importance of strengthening its ties with the EU, focusing on efforts for full membership.
Turkey-EU trade ties
"The program under IPA is one of the most important tools to continue this cooperation through supporting the green and digital transition of the Turkish industry," said Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, the head of the EU Delegation to Turkey.
He also said the program would increase productivity and enable an innovation-driven economy.
"Science, research, green growth and climate change will remain as key European priorities for the future," added Meyer-Landrut.
"Here in Turkey, we will continue supporting the competitiveness, science, technology and innovation activities, as well as the implementation of COSME [EU program for the Competitiveness of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises] and Horizon Europe."
Landrut also commented on the Turkish government's fresh economic reform package, hoping it would positively contribute to the Turkish economy by focusing on key areas such as productivity, digital transformation, green economy and energy efficiency.
"Investing in these areas is increasingly crucial for shaping a better future through smart, sustainable, inclusive and green growth," he said.
The EU is by far Turkey's number-one import and export partner, as well as a source of investments, he reminded, saying the overall trade between Turkey and EU exceeded €130 billion ($155 billion) in goods and services.
"This deep trade and economic integration is clearly helped by the enabling role of the EU-Turkey Customs Union," he underlined.
Turkey is closely integrated into EU value chains and serves as a major production hub for EU companies and is important for European competitiveness, he added.
Turkey Rejects EU 'Grave Human Rights Violation' Claims in Syria
Turkey rejected on Friday the "grave" human rights violations claims in Syria laid out in a report by the European Parliament.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement over the issue, rejecting the claims and stressing that Ankara welcomed millions of Syrian refugees and still bears great responsibilities on its own because of the crisis in Syria.
On Thursday, the European Parliament expressed its deep concern over the persistent "political deadlock" and "the lack of any progress" in Syria. It also affirmed its opposition to any normalization of diplomatic relations with the Assad regime.
It also said that it "considers the upcoming 2021 Syrian Presidential elections to be lacking any form of credibility in the eyes of the international community in the current context."
The statement reaffirmed that a sustainable solution to the Syrian conflict cannot be achieved militarily.
It further expressed its "support to UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2254 (2015) establishing a Syrian-led constitutional reform process, stressing that it deeply regrets the Syrian regime’s lack of engagement despite repeated engagement and readiness of Syrian opposition representatives to negotiate in the drafting of a new Syrian constitution."
The EU Parliament strongly condemned all atrocities and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by the Assad Regime and Russian, Iranian and Turkish actors and accused Turkey of jeopardizing peace in Syria, the Middle East, and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Finally, it reminded all member states that "Syria is not a safe country to return to, noting that any return should be safe, voluntary, dignified and informed, in line with the EU’s stated position."
In response, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said Ankara had carried out military operations in northern Syria against “terror groups” threatening the safety of Syrian and Turkish people, based on the self-defense right stipulated in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.
It also said that the Turkish army has made great efforts to avoid harming civilians during these operations, noting that it succeeded in ridding Syrians of ISIS and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the largest component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition, which Ankara considers an extension of the “banned” Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The statements were in reference to the operations that resulted in the voluntary return of more than 420,000 Syrian refugees to their villages, in line with the supervision of local forces affiliated with the Syrian Interim Government to maintain stability and security.
"The European Parliament should have slammed the YPG for their recent destabilizing increased “terrorist activities,” the statement stressed.
Turkey will continue confronting all terrorist organizations while striving to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis under UN Resolution 2254, it added.
It further called on the Parliament to realize the importance of Turkish contributions in Syria, in terms of protecting the NATO and Europe’s borders, as well as attempts to contribute to reaching a political settlement.
Watching the watchers: Who's at helm of EU's border agency?
The European Union’s border and coast guard agency Frontex, the pride of the 27-nation bloc’s vast effort to keep watch over its frontiers and anyone who might try to enter without authorization, is itself under surveillance — and under fire.
Almost literally sometimes: In the Aegean Sea, Turkish fighter jets and ships have buzzed Frontex aircraft or intimidated the agency’s boats monitoring migrant movements in the narrow strip of sea between Turkey and Greece's eastern islands. Turkish troops allegedly fired warning shots in the air at the land border too.
And in the European Parliament, calls have come for Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri to resign. Some lawmakers say he’s mishandled allegations that the agency was involved in fundamental violations of migrants' rights.
Charity groups and media outlets accuse Frontex of denying people their right to apply for asylum — which is illegal under EU law and refugee treaties. They say it was also complicit in, or failed to prevent, alleged pushbacks at sea by Greece's coastguard, where migrants were returned to Turkish waters.
Although the agency was supposed to have hired 40 fundamental rights officers by December, it still hasn’t.
An inquiry found no link between Frontex and Aegean pushbacks. But the Parliament has set up a “scrutiny group,” to delve into the reports and human rights concerns. The EU’s anti-fraud office is also looking at them, and at claims of misconduct by senior managers.
Even as criticism mounts, Frontex’s powers are growing. In coming years, the agency is projected to swell to a 10,000-strong standing force, with armed officers and hi-tech surveillance equipment. Its budget has ballooned to 5.6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) over the next seven years.
In 2014, the year before the EU's migrant challenge hit its peak, the agency had an annual budget of around 100 million euros and had to request border staff from member countries.
Its role is expanding too. Recently, when the United Kingdom left the EU, it insisted that Frontex handle border controls at the airport in the British territory of Gibraltar rather than Spanish officers.
But as Frontex’s powers and duties grow, so does the need for oversight.
“It is, in my view, the most important agency in the whole European Union. And with power and funding comes responsibility, and of course safeguards and scrutiny,” EU Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson told investigating EU lawmakers on March 4.
Moreover, any failures at Frontex are an added embarrassment for nations that for years have been deeply divided over who should take responsibility for people entering without authorization and whether other member states should be obliged to help out.
“In the absence of the EU agreeing on migration management, what happens on the ground firmly shapes how the EU is viewed from the outside,” Hanne Beirens, at the Migration Policy Institute, told The Associated Press.
The question is: who exactly is at the helm when it comes to Frontex?
The agency is supervised by a management board of national interior ministry, police and border officials which establishes its work plan and operations. The Commission, which supervises the respect of EU laws, has two of the 28 board seats.
Leggeri, a French civil servant named Executive Director in 2015 just as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees were arriving in Europe, is tasked with carrying out the board's strategy. The posts of deputy director and a number of other senior positions are unfilled.
On paper, Frontex is legally accountable to the 27 member countries and the European Parliament. The Commission, through Johansson, has political but not legal responsibility for Frontex’s actions.
Out on the sea, or at land borders, though, Frontex operations are controlled by the country whose territory they take place on. In the Aegean, where many pushbacks have been reported, that means the Greek coastguard. This is where the lines of responsibility get muddy.
Frontex and Greece vehemently deny carrying out pushbacks, and the inquiry cleared the agency, although it did expose “monitoring and reporting” failures. But Leggeri requested twice last year that Athens probe the conduct of the Greek coastguard.
He also told the EU lawmakers that when Turkey waved thousands of migrants through to its borders with Greece last March, Athens decided in an emergency measure “to make optimal use of the provisions on interception” to stop the attempted influx.
That means, Leggeri said, “that in some cases the migrants’ boats can be instructed not to stay in the territorial waters or not to enter.” To some, that might appear to be the very definition of a pushback, and it begs the question: should Frontex comply when an order to intercept a migrant boat might actually be breaking the law?
These blurred legal definitions, unclear lines of command and the conflicting interests of coastal or inland EU member countries make the Frontex ship a complex one to command.
German conservative lawmaker Lena Duepont — a European Parliament “scrutiny group” member — told the AP that there's plenty of room to improve “the management ecosystem of the agency,” especially the way Frontex is growing.
“It’s the first time that we have someone wearing a gun, someone wearing a European uniform,” as part of a standing corps rather than officers sent on request from member countries, she said. Frontex is more “European than ever before, and this is a drastic change within the agency.”
EU worried by shooting incidents near Turkey-Greece border
The European Union’s top migration official expressed concern Friday about a spike in the number of shooting incidents on the Turkish side of the country’s land border with Greece near where EU border officers have been patrolling.
At least 3 incidents involving gunfire into the air by uniformed Turkish personnel have been reported recently. The EU’s border and coastguard agency chief Fabrice Leggeri has written to the European Commission to warn of the rising number of shootings in the Evros region.
“I am always concerned when there are shootings close to EU external borders,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told reporters, “even if it seems that it has not been shooting at any persons.” No details about the incidents were provided.
Leggeri has ordered Frontex officers to wear bulletproof jackets when patrolling in the area.
Tensions along the borders between EU member country Greece and Turkey have long simmered.
They spilled over into violence a year ago after Turkey, angered at a lack of EU support for its invasion into northern Syria, waved thousands of migrants through the borders.
EU leaders will discuss their tense relations with Turkey at a 2-day summit in Brussels starting March 25.
The EU wants to increase cooperation with third countries
The European Union administration stated that they want to increase cooperation with third countries on migration, especially on readmissions, and that if they cannot make progress, they will resort to visa restrictions.
At a press conference held after the meeting with EU interior ministers, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson reported that they evaluated the EU’s cooperation with 39 third countries in 2019, including Turkey.
Johansson urged a discussion between the European Commission and the Member States regarding the cooperation with third countries and especially readmissions. She added, "If we cannot make sufficient progress, I am ready to propose restrictions on our visa policy during the summer. If we can make progress, we can propose more generous visa policies".
Noting that there might be consequences if a third country decided not to cooperate, Johansson stated, "We have regulations and tools for this, and we will use them either for a more generous or a stricter visa policy".
When being asked about the renewal of the March18th deal between Turkey and the EU, she replied that this issue will be discussed at the EU Leaders Summit in two weeks.
She also said that under the EU-Turkey deal, the EU is supposed to receive migrants from Turkey for resettlement, and in return, Turkey is supposed to facilitate migrants’ return from the Greek islands, but this process was suspended after the pandemic started. She stated that they are expecting the EU to restart the process in August and take 2500-3000 migrants from Turkey to resettle them in member countries, and Turkey should proceed with readmissions from the Greek islands.
Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese and Malta Interior and National Security Minister Byron Camilleri discussed the issue of irregular immigration. It was stated that the two ministers dealt with the management of irregular migration flows and paid special attention to the recent political developments that led to the formation of a new national unity government in Libya.
Lamorgese and Camilleri evaluated the progress of the negotiations on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum before the meeting to be held in Athens next week with the participation of the interior ministers of Spain, Greece, Italy, Malta and the Greek Cypriot side.
Camilleri, in his post on Twitter, noted that with his Italian counterpart, they focus on strengthening the cooperation between the two countries on migration.
In the meantime, in the post made on the Twitter account of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was reported that the Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and his Maltese counterpart Evarist Bartolo met in Rome, the two ministers talked about bilateral relations, irregular migration, Libya, cooperation in the fight against organized crime within the EU and the EU’s relations with its southern neighbours.
In a joint written statement made yesterday by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 190 irregular migrants who tried to reach the European coasts from the Central Mediterranean route lost their lives this year, and the number of those who set foot in Italy from North African countries reached 5,700.
Frontex Turns a Blind Eye to Greece’s Border Abuses
An internal probe looking into allegations that the EU border patrol agency, Frontex, is involved in, among other abuses, pushbacks of asylum seekers and migrants at Greece’s sea border with Turkey, raises questions about its willingness or capacity to hold itself accountable.
In eight of 13 incidents examined, the inquiry found "no third-country nationals were turned back in contravention of the principle of non-refoulement." But the investigation provided no details on these incidents. Five other incidents remained unresolved.
Documents obtained by the German pro-transparency group FragDenStaat [Ask The State] and shared with the EUobserver on March 5 offer detailed information into the five unresolved incidents. These documents, in combination with Frontex’s internal probe report, raise serious concerns that Frontex may have become complicit in abuses at Greece’s sea borders.
The documents also raise questions about the way the agency handled and investigated these allegations. There’s a troubling similarity between these incidents and many others documented by independent groups and media outlets in recent years.
Reports from 2020, including from Human Rights Watch, recorded multiple incidents in which Greek coast guard personnel, sometimes accompanied by armed masked men, intercepted, attacked, disabled, and pushed back boats carrying migrants.
With one exception, the incidents analyzed by the inquiry were the few that were reported on internally at Frontex. But the inquiry failed to look into scores of other incidents that affected thousands of people – including many people picked up after reaching the shores of the Greek islands, who were then placed on Greek Coast Guard vessels and abandoned in small inflatable rafts at sea.
The report also failed to look into violent pushbacks at Greece’s land border with Turkey, where Frontex has deployed officers for over a decade.
Frontex’s management board says it is concerned about the effectiveness of reporting and monitoring mechanisms within the agency and wants improvements. But if it is serious about addressing Frontex’ failures to uphold rights, the board should examine a much larger spectrum of reported abuses and press Frontex to reconsider operations when abuses are committed under its oversight. The EU Commission has fundamental responsibilities that cannot be shirked. It cannot tolerate the failure to address allegations of pushbacks and violence against people, including those seeking protection, at the EU’s borders.
HRW doubts Frontex's willingness to investigate migrant pushbacks
Whether the European Union's border patrol agency Frontex is willing to hold itself liable for the numerous pushbacks and violations against migrants and asylum-seekers at Greece's border with Turkey has come into question, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report Wednesday.
In an internal investigation conducted by Frontex's management board into these allegations of pushbacks of migrants and asylum-seekers, eight of 13 incidents were examined, the watchdog said.
The inquiry found that no "third-country nationals were turned back in contravention of the principle of non-refoulement," an act of forcing migrants to return to a country or territory where they might face persecution. However, the investigation gave no details on the incidents and had left five cases unresolved, the report said.
In the meantime, a German pro-transparency group, FragDenStaat, gave detailed information on the five incidents that were left unresolved, offering insight into the possible illegal pushbacks.
According to HRW, the information about these five incidents and the internal probe conducted by Frontex raises concerns about the agency's involvement in these abuses as well as the way it has investigated the allegations.
"They looked at the five incidents, but there was no conclusion on them," HRW researcher Eva Cosse told Anadolu Agency (AA).
"About the eight other incidents, it says they examined them and that they concluded they were not pushbacks, but they do not provide further details in the report," she added.
The incidents that were analyzed in the probe were the few that were reported on internally at Frontex, HRW said in its report.
In addition, it failed to look into serious incidents of violations where people were picked up after reaching Greek shores and then taken by the Greek coast guard to inflatable rafts at sea, it said.
Frontex's management board has shared its concerns about the effectiveness of its reporting and monitoring mechanisms, but it should examine at large the reported abuses and press the agency to reconsider operations when abuses are committed, HRW said.
It was reported earlier this month that the border agency's probe into allegations of illegal migrant pushbacks on the Greece-Turkey maritime border has proven inconclusive.
The report by a working group appointed by Frontex management, which was shared by a source close to the investigation, said it was “not able to clarify completely” the details of five incidents of alleged rights violations. But the working group did point to “deficits and the need for improvement of the reporting and monitoring system” in place.
It concluded that action by Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri to halt operations in the Aegean Sea “would not be justified.”
Leggeri has been under pressure for months over the allegations as Frontex takes on a greater frontline role in patrolling EU borders. EU lawmakers and activists have called for him to resign over the operations, but he has refused to, insisting the agency is key to the fight against human trafficking. Meanwhile, the agency is also being investigated by OLAF, the independent EU corruption watchdog.
The pressure intensified after media and rights organizations documented multiple cases of Frontex border officers, alongside national counterparts in EU countries, forcing migrants back, particularly along Greece's sea border with Turkey. At least six incidents in which Frontex units were involved in pushbacks near the islands of Lesbos and Samos between April 28 and Aug. 19 have been documented.
In recent years, Turkey and Greece have been key transit points for migrants aiming to cross into Europe, fleeing war and persecution to start new lives. Turkey has accused Greece of large-scale pushbacks and summary deportations without access to asylum procedures, which is a violation of international law. It has also accused the EU of turning a blind eye to what it says is a blatant abuse of human rights.
Pushbacks are considered contrary to international refugee protection agreements that say people shouldn't be expelled or returned to a country where their life and safety might be in danger due to their race, religion, nationality or membership in a social or political group. Such actions prevent asylum-seekers from making claims for refugee status and if practiced indiscriminately against a group of migrants it can constitute refoulement – a violation of EU human rights laws and the 1951 Geneva Convention.
While the border agency is required to rescue migrants, the Frontex vessels patrolling the area sped past the overcrowded, inflatable boats, creating dangerous waves to force them to return to Turkish shores. A Frontex aircraft was also documented passing over migrants, who were seeking help at sea, but did not rescue them.
The Berlin-based rights group Mare Liberum also said in January it had documented 321 incidents from March to December 2020 involving more than 9,000 people. Mare Liberum's report said that in addition to the Greek coast guard, Frontex and ships under NATO command were also involved in "systematic and illegal expulsions."
Turkey rescues 35 migrants
Most recently, Turkey on Thursday rescued 35 irregular migrants who were illegally pushed back by the Greek Coast Guard into Turkish territorial waters in the Aegean Sea, security sources said.
The asylum seekers were rescued from a rubber boat off the coast of Ayvalık in Turkey’s northwestern Balıkesir province, the Turkish Coast Guard Command said in a statement.
The group, including women and children, was brought to Alibey Island, also known as Cunda, it said. Food, drinks, and medical supplies were provided to the asylum seekers, the statement added.
In a statement issued last month, Turkey urged Athens and "all elements involved in pushbacks" to end their violations of international law, human rights agreements and a migration deal between the EU and Turkey.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry's statement cited two incidents on Feb. 23 and Feb. 24 in which Greek forces assaulted groups of asylum-seekers, took their valuables and left them stranded on an island in the middle of the Maritsa (Meriç) River.
Over 80,000 asylum-seekers have been pushed back to Turkey in the last four years, the ministry said, accusing Greece of pursuing a "systematic policy" for years on pushbacks with the involvement of Frontex.
Turkey to further defend Syria’s territorial integrity: FM Çavuşoğlu
Turkey will continue to defend Syria’s territorial integrity, protect civilians and fight terrorist groups, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Thursday.
Çavuşoğlu's remarks came during a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and Qatari counterpart Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani in Doha.
"Rather than trying to make arrangements with the Assad regime, the international community should look for ways to cooperate with Syrians," the foreign minister continued and added: "We should focus on having a political process, which is something that the regime will not commit to as long as it is still legitimized by the world."
Çavuşoğlu also said the ministers discussed how to contribute to long-lasting peace in Syria.
Underlining that the legitimate demands of the civilians were ignored, he said Syrians have been exposed to negative impacts of the conflict for over a decade.
He further thanked his Qatari counterpart and the country for the initiative.
Syria has been embroiled in a civil war since early 2011 when the Assad regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests with unexpected ferocity.
Over the past 10 years, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and more than 10 million displaced, according to United Nations officials.
Lavrov, for his part, expressed that Russia, Turkey and Qatar agree to fight separatist attempts in Syria.
"Today’s meeting is not an alternative to the Astana process. It’s just an attempt to contribute to the Syrian peace process," Al Thani said, regarding the questions of whether the Astana process has been replaced by this new initiative or not.
"Qatari, Russian and Turkish foreign ministers continue to discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria and the facilitation of aid deliveries," he continued.
The three released a joint statement after the meeting, saying that they reaffirm their commitment to advancing the political process in Syria facilitated by the U.N. rather than a military solution.
"Turkey, Russia and Qatar stress the need to facilitate a safe and voluntary return of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons," the statement continued.
Çavuşoğlu also met with Qatari emir in Doha.
In a Twitter post, Çavuşoğlu said: "Met with Amir Sheikh Tamim (bin Hamad Al Thani) of #Qatar. Welcome Qatar's role in efforts for conflict resolution in #Syria."
He said he "will work with Qatar on the road to peace in Afghanistan," stressing that the two countries' strong cooperation serves regional peace.
"Continuing to support normalization in Gulf," the Turkish minister said on Twitter, adding that they will continue to further develop cooperation with Qatar in every field.
Ankara and Doha enjoy strong ties, particularly since the 2017 blockade of the Gulf country by Saudi Arabia and others.
On Jan. 5, 2021, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt signed a reconciliation deal with Qatar during a Gulf Cooperation Council summit to end a more than three-year feud in a move welcomed by Turkey.
Earlier, Çavuşoğlu arrived in the Gulf state of Qatar on a two-day working visit and attended a trilateral meeting with the Qatari and Russian foreign ministers.
The Turkish foreign minister also met with former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab during his visit.
"In Qatar, where we came for a trilateral meeting, we discussed the developments regarding the latest situation in Syria with former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab," said Çavuşoğlu on Twitter.
Cyprus, Greece seek tougher EU stance on Turkey migrants
Cyprus Interior Minister Nicos Nouris and Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis demanded the EU no longer tolerate Turkey’s behaviour on the migration issue.
In their joint statements in Athens, Nouris said that during his meeting with Mitarakis, they discussed developments on a unified European policy for immigration and asylum.
Nouris stressed that Greece and Cyprus, as frontline EU countries, face common challenges on migration and asylum.
During the past four years, the number of asylum seekers in Cyprus has reached 4% of the country’s population, Nouris said.
“At the same time, Greece and Cyprus have been called on to manage the influxes from Turkey, which remains immune from our partners’ reactions…this tolerant stance cannot continue.”
Nouris welcomed Greece’s initiative to convene on 19-20 March a summit of the Interior Ministers of five first-entry countries for developing a common position towards a unified European policy for migration and asylum.
The Greek Minister for Migration and Asylum said his discussions with Nouris focused on finding more effective strategies for managing the common migration pressures that Greece and Cyprus are facing.
He noted that both Athens and Nicosia hope to achieve better results on the new European Pact on Immigration and Asylum.
“Both counties have expressed their concerns on the existing provisions of the Pact and the disequilibrium between the responsibilities that the first-line countries assume and the limited solidarity shown by the other member-states,” Mitarakis said.
Nicosia argues the overwhelming majority of migration flows originate from Turkey, a country that fails to implement agreements on migration towards Cyprus.
It says Turkey’s stance has led to the creation, rather than prevention, of a new migration route in the eastern Mediterranean, which disproportionally burdens Cyprus and places enormous strain on its asylum system.
The EU member state has had the bloc’s highest percentage of asylum seekers for several years.
The republic registered 1,640 first-time asylum applications in the third quarter of 2020, a figure representing 1,848 per million of its population, Eurostat said.
In December, Nouris said that in 2019, Cyprus received approximately 17,000 asylum applications, increasing more than 500% compared with 2015.
The revitalization period in Turkey-EU relations is about to gain speed with intensified diplomatic contact between the two sides in the upcoming days.
While Turkey aims to promote peace and cooperation in its region in line with principles based on fairness and legitimacy, the country is expected to host high-level officials from Brussels, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel in the following period.
Diplomatic sources say that the dialogue on the possible next steps is continuing, and there is a more positive attitude from both sides.
Five topics are expected to dominate the agenda during the upcoming meetings: the renewal of the migrant deal, updating the customs union, visa liberalization, Turkey's proposal for an Eastern Mediterranean conference and the opening of new chapters in Turkey's accession process to the EU, in which Turkey was officially recognized as a candidate for full membership in 1999, and negotiations for full membership were started in 2005.
In March 2016, Ankara and Brussels signed an agreement to reduce the number of migrants taking the dangerous Aegean Sea route to Europe and to find a solution for the influx of migrants heading to EU countries. Despite significant developments controlling migration traffic, Turkey has frequently complained that the EU has not fully delivered on its commitments stated in the deal and criticized the international community for its indifference to the migrant crisis.
Since last year, when the renewed attacks on civilians by the Assad regime in northwestern Syria risked another wave of migration to Turkey, Ankara has also frequently expressed that as years have passed since the deal was made and conditions have since changed, a new road map to tackle the issue of irregular migration is now required. During Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s visit to Brussels earlier this year, he also said that Turkey and the EU voiced a consensus on the need to renew the March 18 migration deal.
Çavuşoğlu’s visit came after a tumultuous year in Turkey-EU relations marked by disputes on several issues, including the Eastern Mediterranean tensions, Turkey's role in Syria, the migrant crisis and the stalemate in Turkey's accession process to the bloc. During a meeting in Brussels on Dec. 10, EU leaders decided to draw up a list of Turkish targets to sanction. But since then, the rhetoric on all sides has mellowed dramatically as Turkey and the bloc voiced its intent to "turn a new page." Turkey has recently reiterated that it is part of the bloc and sees its future in the EU, while it will continue efforts toward full EU membership. Turkish officials have also said that they hope for progress in 2021 and expect the bloc to take definitive action to this end. Most recently, the EU in January decided to hold off on potentially sanctioning Turkey thanks to positive developments made during a meeting with the bloc's foreign ministers.
According to the migrant deal, visa freedom for Turkish citizens was also a perk of the agreement. In addition, the customs union between Turkey and the EU was to be updated. In exchange for these promises, Turkey took responsibility for discouraging migration through the Aegean Sea by taking stricter measures against human traffickers and improving the conditions of Syrian migrants living in Turkey. Although the first stage of financial funding was provided to Turkey, the EU has yet to fulfill the second stage or other provisions such as establishing the visa-free deal for Turkish citizens and updating the customs union – a trade agreement that came into effect on Dec. 31, 1995, following the March 6, 1995, Decision of the European Community-Turkey Association Council to implement an association between the two parties in which goods may travel between the two entities without any customs restrictions.
During the upcoming diplomacy traffic, Turkey is also expected to repeat its proposal for an Eastern Mediterranean conference. Çavuşoğlu recently said that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's proposal for the conference, with the participation of all actors in the region, is the latest example of Turkey's sincere desire for cooperation.
Turkey, which has the longest continental coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean, has rejected the maritime boundary claims of Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, stressing that these excessive claims violate the sovereign rights of both Turkey and Turkish Cypriots. Last year, Turkey sent several drillships to explore energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, asserting its own rights in the region as well as those of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
Turkish leaders have repeatedly stressed that Ankara is in favor of resolving all outstanding problems in the region through international law, good neighborly relations, dialogue and negotiation. Yet, Turkey has also criticized the EU’s stance on the Eastern Mediterranean conflict, calling on the bloc to adopt a fair attitude regarding the dispute and give up on favoring Greece under the pretext of EU solidarity. Instead of opting to solve problems with Turkey through dialogue, Greece has, on several occasions, refused to sit at the negotiating table and opted to rally the EU to take a tougher stance against Ankara.
The leader of the Future Party, Ahmet Davutoglu, strongly criticizes the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan because, as he claims, the Turkish president’s partners are aiming to mold the Turkish Constitution into something resembling the Chinese model.
He also believes that Turkey has been isolated in the region of the Eastern Mediterranean as Erdogan’s personal relations have affected the way foreign policy is implemented.
Davutoglu considers the deal between Turkey and the European Union on migration as particularly important because it led to the liberalization of EU visas for Turkish citizens. “This deal bothered some circles in Turkey who do not want the country on a European path, in the same way it bothered those in Europe who also do not want this path,” he claimed.
At the same time, he reminds us that “we lived through a terrible event, where a gang opposing democracy attempted to stage a coup in Turkey. Our country and our people responded in an appropriate way to this attempt as did I that night when I took a clear stand and addressed the people in support of democracy.”
Davutoglu expresses his concern about the situation in Turkey and speaks negatively of the Turkish president’s partners. “There are now new partners of Mr Erdogan, Mr [Devlet] Bahceli and mainly Mr [Dogu] Perincek. We might also have maintained good relations with China in our time, but we had never talked about following a Chinese model. We held up the European model as the democratic ideal. The approach used by Turkey today is constantly moving it away from the European model of democracy and government,” he says.
Missile strikes hit oil refineries in north Syria, killing one
BEIRUT: Missile strikes in northern Syria near the Turkish border killed one person and injured at least eleven others on Friday, Turkish state media and a source from the Turkish-backed faction that controls the region said.
Explosions rocked local oil refineries near the towns of Al-Bab and Jarablus, sparking large fires, a witness and Turkey's state-owned Anadolu news agency said.
The source in the National Army, which controls swathes of northwest Syria where Turkish troops have a presence, said missile strikes had caused the blasts, wounding eleven people. Anadolu said that they were ballistic missiles and that it was not clear who carried out the strikes, which it said injured 18 people.
Turkey has backed fighters who sought to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad, but the Syrian president, with Russian and Iranian help, has driven back the insurgents to a pocket in the northwest of the country.
EU lawmaker calls for procedure against Greece over migrant treatment at Turkish border
A year after the deadly clashes between migrants and Greek border guards at the Greek-Turkish border, EU lawmaker Erik Marquardt has called on the bloc to launch infringement proceedings against Greece over alleged human rights abuses against migrants.
Had the bullet hit him slightly higher or lower, he wouldn't be alive today. That's what a doctor told him a year ago at the Greek-Turkish border, Syrian Muhammad Hantou told German news agency dpa.
Hantou was shot when he, like thousands of others, tried to cross into the EU. Grey scars reveal the injury at his ear, which still impairs him. Sometimes he's dizzy, and he cannot concentrate very long, he says.
On February 28 last year, Turkey declared it was "no longer able to hold refugees", leading to thousands of migrants travelling to that border to try to reach Europe. They were pushed back by Greek border guards, including with tear gas, stun grenades and batons.
Criticism from EU lawmaker
The incidents at the border in February 2020 amount to a "systematic violation of EU law," Erik Marquardt, a member of the European Parliament for the Green party, told dpa on Sunday.
Marquardt cited examples such as shots fired at the border, so-called pushbacks, suspension of asylum procedures and violations of the directive on reception of applicants for international protection.
Marquardt said the European Commission is the "guardian of the treaties, and this means if EU law is broken so obviously, then we need an infringement procedure." Member states should not just "sugar-coat human rights violations" but find a "plain language" to address Greece, he added.
Deadly clashes at the border
According to dpa, "(I)nternational research teams have found that live ammunition was very likely also used by the guards." In the end, at least two migrants died: The Syrian Muhammad al-Arab and the Pakistani Muhammad Gulzar. According to Amnesty International, a Syrian woman is presumed missing.
The Turkish government has said that its Greek counterpart is responsible for the death of the three migrants, which the Greek government denies. Greek authorities told dpa that the incidents at the beginning of March 2020 involved a "threat to national security." They said the accusations of illegal actions were "tendentious," and such actions were not part of the practices of Greek authorities.
Soon after migrants arrived at the border, Greece and Turkey engaged in a proxy war on social media over what is happening on their border, with both sides accusing each other of carrying out abuses and spreading fake news.
After camping out at the border for weeks and trying in vain to cross the border, Turkish authorities sent the some 6,000 migrants to cities inside Turkey at the end of March.
What exactly happened at the Greek-Turkish border in early March 2020 remains unclear. EU lawmaker Erik Marquardt called it "shocking" that there haven't been any consequences. "I had expected the outcry to be a lot bigger," he said.
Last year's events continue to affect not only the EU's migration policy, but also the life of Muhammad Hantou. It was his third attempt to reach Europe, he says. His first two attempts, both via boat, failed, reports dpa.
He told dpa he wanted to reach the Netherlands since his then-girlfriend was living there and they wanted to get engaged. Before the war in Syria, they were neighbors. When Hantou heard that the borders were supposedly open, he boarded a bus in Istanbul.
The conditions at the border were chaotic, he remembers. Greek border guards used tear gas, while migrants threw stones and some cut holes into the border fence. "The moment I put a foot into one of the holes, they shot," he told dpa, referring to the Greek side.
Hantou remembers being dragged to the ambulance. According to the medical report, which dpa has seen, bullets from a firearm injured him. There was a bullet hole at his right ear -- one bullet is still stuck in his skull.
"Sometimes, when I go to sleep, I feel pain in this part. Sometimes I'm scared of falling or it getting infected and making everything worse," Hantou says.
Technically, he needs surgery, but he only spent one week in hospital. For the past three months, he has been cleaning dishes. Two lawyers are taking care of Hantou's case, but they weren't able to file a complaint yet due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Greek lawyer told dpa.
Millions of migrants stuck in Turkey
Some four million refugees and migrants currently call Turkey home, the largest number of all host countries, including 3.6 million Syrians. According to the so-called EU-Turkey deal from 2016, Turkey has committed to stopping irregular migration to Europe in return for financial support.
But times and again, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan uses the deal to pressure the EU. Observers say aforementioned declaration that Turkey was "no longer able to hold refugees" a year ago was an example of this to force the EU to provide more support.
Renewed EU-Turkey ties in our mutual best interest: Italian envoy
A renewed relationship between Turkey and the European Union will be in the mutual interest of both sides in line with the positive agenda adopted in the recent EU Council meeting, Italy’s ambassador to Ankara has said, underlining that reforms to be announced soon in the field of rule of law will be welcomed by the EU.
Massimo Gaiani, Italy’s ambassador to Ankara, has outlined the scope of Turkish-Italian bilateral relations, the current state of play between Turkey and the EU as well as the discussions about the past year’s tensions in the eastern Mediterranean in an exclusive interview with the Hürriyet Daily News.
Italy has a new government, and it was remarkable to observe that Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi praised the ties with Turkey as both a partner in the Mediterranean basin and a NATO ally. How would you describe the importance of the collaboration with Turkey for Italy?
Turkey is certainly a priority for Italy’s foreign policy and has been one of the very few countries mentioned by Prime Minister Draghi in presenting, a few weeks ago, the government program to the Italian Parliament. The cornerstone of our international projection are the EU, NATO and the Mediterranean basin, where we will continue to push for renewed dialogue and a peaceful settlement of any dispute.
For Italy, Turkey is a close partner and an essential actor in the Mediterranean Region, a crucial ally in NATO and is also very important for the EU. Rome and Ankara are constantly acting together for the reinforcement of the Southern flank of NATO. We believe that a renewed relationship between the EU and Turkey is in our mutual best interest, as Ankara is important for our economy, for our security and for regional stability. That is why we hope that all sides will work constructively in the next months to create a renewed spirit of cooperation.
Italy believes in Turkey. In the last year, our companies were the main investors here, and Italy is the second trade partner of Turkey in Europe and permanently among the top five in the world. Our economic and industrial partnership will be crucial for both countries to recover from the economic effects of the pandemic.
Turkey and the EU have recently adopted a positive agenda that includes the renewal of the migration deal of 2016, upgrading customs union and visa liberalization. Could you please specify the Italian position concerning all these aspects of the positive agenda?
Our Country, within the EU, is among those who have most strongly supported the need to increase dialogue on a positive agenda with Turkey, and it should cover the three areas that you have indicated. Turkey is the country that hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, around 4 million. Italy, as well as the EU, are aware of the enormous efforts made by Turkey, and we greatly admire what has been done here in terms of assistance and integration of these refugees. We, therefore, believe that Turkey’s efforts should continue to be supported.
We also believe that it will be in the best interest of both the EU and Turkey to resume the discussion on the modernization of the customs union. In this regard, we also need to concentrate on the better implementation of the existing agreement.
The liberalization of the visa regime mentioned in the EU-Turkey Statement of March 2016 certainly can be a fertile ground for an increase in the level of cooperation, accepting the fact that mutual efforts must be made to find the synthesis of the respective positions.