Maureen White is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at SAIS. 

The European Union and Turkey are inching towards an agreement to stem the flow of refugees to Europe.  After 12 hours of talks in Brussels on Monday, March 7th, European leaders say they have reached agreement on the outlines of a possible deal with Ankara.

At the heart of the deal between the EU and Turkey is a controversial refugee exchange program.

The plan is to return any refugees and migrants who cross the sea to Greece in smugglers' boats immediately to Turkey. In exchange for the mass returns, the EU is offering to take in large numbers of asylum seekers directly from Turkey. For every Syrian sent back to Turkey, one already in Turkey will be resettled in Europe.

EU leaders have hailed the one-for-one plan as a breakthrough that would deter Syrians from making dangerous journeys across the Aegean Sea. Furthermore, it will limit the number of refugees amassing in Greece.

European Union officials say that the agreement "will comply with both European and international law."

Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, maintained that sending refugees back to Turkey was legal and in line with the Geneva Convention. He cited specific paragraphs in the EU’s asylum procedures, saying that countries can refuse to consider refugee claims if there is a safe place to send them.

But it is not at all clear that this is the case:

  • The European Convention on Human Rights explicitly prohibits the collective expulsion of foreigners. Under international law, it is not illegal for someone fleeing persecution and conflict to cross a border and ask for asylum, and thus the EU has no legal standing to undertake mass returns.
  • Until now, the EU has not returned people to Turkey because Turkey is not viewed as a "safe third country". Turkey is not a full member of the 1951 Refugee Convention. It does not offer Syrians asylum, only a lesser form of international protection.
  • UN officials point out that people can only be sent back to a country that is safe, is able to care for them, and can provide access to work, education and healthcare.  Most important of all, the country has to be willing to process the individual's asylum claim. None of these are guaranteed in Turkey.

Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s European regional coordinator, roundly criticized the emerging plan, saying, “The collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under the European Convention of Human Rights…a blanket return of any foreigners to a third country is not consistent with European law, is not consistent with international law.”

Criticisms of the plan have been launched by a wide array of organizations, including Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières, and Amnesty International.  Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch said, “The integrity of the EU’s asylum system, indeed the integrity of European values, is at stake.”

EU leaders will aim to seal the deal with Turkey at another summit on March 17th and 18th, but in order to do so, the EU will have to meet demands from Turkey that also risk undermining Europe’s own high-minded human rights principles.

The money is the easy part. At the end of last year, the EU agreed to provide 3 billion euros in aid, and is now considering doubling that amount.

More troubling is the fact that the EU has agreed to Turkey’s demands for completing a visa liberalization process, that is, lifting visa requirements for Turkish citizens in the Schengen Area. Furthermore, the EU has promised to re-open negotiations on Turkey’s bid to join the bloc. This is a hard thing to swallow given the very real indications that the Turkish government does not abide by the human rights standards that the EU holds so dear.

The Turkish government has cracked down on the country’s media, judiciary and political opposition, making it almost impossible to provide media oversight or to hold the country’s leaders accountable. The military has come down hard on Kurdish activists by imposing blanket curfews; the activists say 200 civilians have been killed in the last few months during clashes between security forces and armed Kurdish militants. Is this really a country that belongs in the European Union?

One has to wonder about the trade-offs. The EU has every right and many reasons to try to impose order on the flow of legitimate refugees into the region and to do so in a way that limits the risks to the refugees and that shares the burdens among the member countries.  Turkey plays a vital role in creating that orderly process. At the same time, it is a strange bedfellow with a great deal of leverage in the process.  In doing this deal with Turkey, the EU is walking a very fine line, skirting, if not actually violating, its own asylum laws and those of the international community and simultaneously turning a blind eye to the very real human rights abuses of its Turkish partner. 

PHOTO CREDIT: by Freedom House (public domain).