EU-Turkey Refugee Deal

EU-Turkey Refugee Deal

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have left the country to head towards Europe. In another article, we discuss the Syrian refugee crisis, and all of the challenges that the refugees are facing. As has been documented, the Syrian refugees are facing horrible conditions, with many stranded in European countries, waiting for asylum. The European countries have by in large been hesitant to accept the refugees. In fact, the European Union states (and non-European Union countries of Europe) have debated their response to the refugees.

European Union countries have been negotiating what to do, and what other countries’ responsibilities are. This was particularly the case with the EU and Turkey. The European Union has been speaking with the Turkish government, urging them to take in more Syrian refugees. In fact, the negotiations continued for a long period of time, beginning months earlier with the EU proposing additional Turkish help in exchange for possibly speeding up the process for Turkey to join the European Union. In fact, before the EU-Turkey refugee deal, Turkish President Ahmet Davutoglu was quoted as saying  “I hope we will be achieving our goal to help all the refugees, as well as to deepen Turkish-EU relations — which is … good news for our continent and for humanity all together” (Botehlo, 2016).

On March 18th, 2016, the European Council and Turkey reached a refugee deal. This deal is not yet officially been approved by the European Union, but they will vote on this agreed deal shortly, and it seems that they are all supportive of it (BBC, 2016). There were discussions about what the refugee deal looked like as early as Thursday. According to reports, “Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel tweeted news of the agreement late Thursday after talks in Brussels where leaders were assured that the draft deal would not result in mass deportations and differences were bridged over sweeteners to give Turkey in exchange for its help” (Yahoo, 2016). 

However, the deal notes that any refugee that travels from Turkey to Greece would be sent back to Turkey. As Mardell (2016) noted in his March 17th report:

The EU leaders said “bold moves” were needed, and made the following proposals:

  • All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece will be returned to Turkey. Irregular migrants means all those outside normal transit procedures, ie without documentation
  • In exchange for every returned Syrian, one Syrian from Turkey will be resettled in the EU
  • Plans to ease access to the EU for Turkish citizens will be speeded up, with a view to allowing visa-free travel by June
  • EU payments of €3bn ($3.3bn; £2.2bn) promised in October will be speeded up, with the possibility of further aid to help Turkey deal with the crisis. Turkey reportedly asked for the sum to be doubled
  • Preparations will be made for opening new chapters in talks on EU membership for Turkey

Given the history of Turkey’s claim to Northern Cyprus, and criticism of this position by Cyprus and members of the European Union (as well as much of the world), Cyprus has been unwilling to support Turkey’s entrance into the European Union. However, according to reports, “Cyprus would agree to lift any objections to reinvigorating Turkey’s European Union membership talks if Ankara opens its ports and airports to Cypriot ships and aircraft. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to discuss ongoing negotiations publicly, said Cyprus had blocked five policy areas, or chapters, in Turkey’s EU membership talks because Ankara would not extend its customs union with the bloc and allow Cypriot ships and aircraft into its ports and airports” (Yahoo, 2016).

Criticisms of the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal

Human rights activists, while praising the importance of keeping the Syrian refugee crisis issue at the forefront of countries’ policies, are furious at what this deal means, particularly with regards to international human rights law –and more specifically, refugee law.

Criticisms of the deal existed even before an agreement on March 18th, 2016.

For example, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees criticized the deal, saying that it is against international refugee law to automatically send asylum seekers back to the county they began their travels from without due process. In a March 9th, 2016 Al Jazeera article, Vincent Cochetel, who is the UNHCR’s Europe regional director, was quoted as saying that “”The collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under the European Convention of Human Rights.” He went on to say that “”An agreement that would be tantamount to a blanket return of any foreigners to a third country, is not consistent with European law, is not consistent with international law”” (Al Jazeera, 2016).

As a counter to this, the UNHCR has offered its own suggestions to what they would like the refugee deal to look like. The UNHCR published a statement on March 18th following the announcement of the EU-Turkey refugee deal. In it, they reaffirmed their expectation that the European Union states (or Turkey) would ensure that international human rights law was followed. Speaking about the agreement, they said:

“…it is explicit that any modalities of implementation of the agreement will respect international and European law. In UNHCR’s understanding, in light of relevant jurisprudence, this means that people seeking international protection will have an individual interview on whether their claim can be assessed in Greece, and the right to appeal before any readmission to Turkey. This would also entail that once returned, people in need of international protection will be given the chance to seek and effectively access protection in Turkey. We now need to see how this will be worked out in practice, in keeping with the safeguards set out in the agreement  many of which at present are not in place.

The UNHCR also stressed the importance of helping Greece deal with the refugees coming over from Turkey. Furthermore, they also said that “people being returned to Turkey and needing international protection must have a fair and proper determination of their claims, and within a reasonable time. Assurances against refoulement, or forced return, must be in place. Reception and other arrangements need to be readied in Turkey before anyone is returned from Greece. People determined to be needing international protection need to be able to enjoy asylum, without discrimination, in accordance with accepted international standards, including effective access to work, health care, education for children, and, as necessary, social assistance.” Lastly, they called for the assurance of resettlement, not only for Syrian refugees, but also for other refugees from around the world (UNHCR, 2016).

However, other organizations also spoke about what they view as a refugee deal that will not place refugee rights at the center of action. Following the announcement of the refugee deal, Amnesty International posted a statement on their twitter account which said ” This is a dark day for the refugee convention, a dark day for Europe and a dark day for humanity.” In addition, “John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia, said promises by the EU to respect international and European law “appear suspiciously like sugar-coating the cyanide pill that refugee protection in Europe has just been forced to swallow”. He added: “Guarantees to scrupulously respect international law are incompatible with the touted return to Turkey of all irregular migrants arriving on the Greek islands as of Sunday”” (BBC, 2016). In fact, the human rights organization was protesting the summit, and in particular, they put put a screen in Brussels (where the meeting was held) which read “Don’t trade refugees. Stop the deal'” (Al Jazeera, 2016a).

Europe-Turkey Visa Free Travel

As mentioned above,  part of the Turkey-European Union refugee deal has to do with increased access for Turkish citizens with regards to entering Europe. On May 3rd, 2016, it was reported that Turkey and the European Union were close to solidifying visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to Europe’s Schengen region. The proposal was going to be put forward to the European Union Commission. There were issues with this potential agreement, particularly since the European Union expects that not only will continue to help with refugees, but they also want Turkey to guarantee human rights in the country (which include but are not limited to minority rights). And this is an issue with this agreement. Turkey under Erdogan and the AKP Party are continuing to move in an increasingly authoritarian direction. Thus, as the Katya Adler (2016) writes:

If the European Commission (the EU’s executive body) does make the recommendation this Wednesday that Turks be granted visa-free travel in Europe’s Schengen area, as whispers from well-placed EU sources suggest, then it will be doing so holding its nose and its breath.

The freedom of speech; the right to a fair trial; and revising terrorism legislation to better protect minority rights – these are just some of the criteria demanded by the EU of countries before it lifts visa requirements, even for short-term travel.

It is hard to see how Turkey could be described as meeting these conditions. The government in Ankara increasingly cracks down on its critics in a manner more autocratic than democratic.

But these are desperate times for the EU. The European Commission and most EU governments are under huge public pressure to ease the migrant crisis.

My sources say the commission will therefore keep to the agreed script. But they insist this is no blank cheque. Turkey will get the green light over visas this week to keep it sweet. But it will also be informed of the outstanding criteria it still needs to meet.

This agreement, while being used to help Turkey come closer to the European Union, continues to stop all refugees from getting the help they so desperately need. In addition, the deal seems to also allow for continued authoritarianism in Turkey, without the political or economic costs that the European Union could impose. 

Interestingly, on July 31, 2016, Al Jazeera (2016c) reported that “Turkey would have to back out of its agreement with the European Union (EU) to stem the flow of refugees and migrants into the bloc if the EU does not deliver visa-free travel for Turks, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said.” European states have hesitated on the visa-free traveling because of the effects following the failed military coup in Turkey. However, for Turkey, no guarantee of this free travel has led leaders to suggest that they might move away from the refugee deal by October (Al Jazeera, 2016c).

Anti-Terrorism Laws and the Refugee Deal

With attempts by both Turkey and the European Union to finalize the refugee deal, their talks seemed to come to major roadblock in mid-May of 2016. The European Union leaders have been pressured by activists to hold Erdogan and Turkey accountable for their aggressive anti-terror policies in Turkey. European Leaders then argued that if a visa-free deal would come into place, Turkey would have to change its approach towards fighting terrorism; their actions against innocent Kurds in southern Turkey is something that would have to stop. However, Erdogan responded by calling this “hypocrisy” by Europe as his country was in the middle of a conflict with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) (Ozerkan, 2016).

Erdogan was direct in calling out the European Union, saying “The EU stands up and says ‘soften your approach over the terrorist organization.” He was also quoted as saying “”Since when are you running this country? Who has given you the authority?” he asked, in one of his most stinging attacks in recent weeks on the EU. “They believe they have a right for themselves (to fight terror) but find it a luxury and unacceptable for us. Let me say it clearly — this is called hypocrisy”” (Ozerkan, 2016).

And thus, while Europe continues to demand that Turkey meet everyone of the 72 criteria for the deal to go through, Erdogan is maintaining the government’s anti-terrorism approach (Ozerkan, 2016).

Effects of the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal

As mentioned, there have been a great deal of criticism of the EU-Turkey migrant deal from many human rights activists. According to Urban (2016), shortly after the deal began to be implemented, it seems that the “crisis” that Europe was facing months ago with regards to an influx of refugees no longer seems to be the case. For example, “Even as late as January this year, the numbers looked set to exceed last year’s total with 3,500 to 4,000 asylum seekers a day still arriving in Germany. But figures obtained by the BBC show that in April a daily average of only 183 made it (giving a total for the whole month of 5,485, less than one day’s arrivals back in September).” He goes on to say that ” Filming at the station in the Bavarian town of Rosenheim in January, we were told that 800-1,200 migrants were arriving every day on trains from Austria. Last week [in early May], a federal police spokesman in Rosenheim told us that the daily average is now only 80, almost all of whom have come via the “Brenner route”, meaning Austria’s border with Italy. Even this, though, is now being sealed by the Austrian government, amid scenes of protest at the weekend” (Urban, 2016).

However, he points out that this in no way suggests that there are no more refugees, nor does it imply that refugees are all of a sudden faring well. In fact, there continue to be millions of Syrian internally displaced persons within the country, or millions who are now having to go to more dangerous areas such as Iraq, or more difficult areas that include Turkey, Lebanon, etc… Nor does the deal fully stop all refugees from making the dangerous trip to Greece. However, their movement has been greatly limited going from Greece to Macedonia (and much of this has do with with the razor-wire fencing that has been put on on the border, and also stopping additional border crossings (Urban, 2016). And, also very important to keep in mind is the fact that the reasons refugees are fleeing Syria continues to be there (Urban, 2016); the situation has not improved in the country. And so, there continue to be refugees, but their struggles are now just concentrated in the Middle East, and not in Europe. 


Adler, K. (2016). Migrant Crisis: EU ‘to back’ visa-free travel for Turkey. BBC. May 3rd, 2016. Available Online:

Al Jazeera (2016a). Turkey and EU reach landmark deal on refugees. Al Jazeera. March 18, 2016. Available Online: 

Al Jazeera (2016). UN says EU-Turkey refugee deal would violate law. Al Jazeera. 09 March 2016. Available Online:

Al Jazeera (2016c). Turkey threatens to back away from refugee deal with EU. Al Jazeera. July 31, 2016. Available Online:

BBC (2016). Migrant Crisis: Amnesty hits out at EU over Turkey deal. BBC News. March 18, 2016. Available Online: 

Botelho, G. (2016). EU, Turkey reach deal on plan for handling refugees. CNN. March 18, 2016. Available Online:

Ozerkan, F. (2016). Turkey visa deal unravels as Erdogan defies EU on key condition. Yahoo News. May 12, 2016. Available Online:

UNHCR (2016). UNHCR on EU-Turkey deal: Asylum safeguards must prevail in implementation. March 18, 2016. Available Online:

Urban, M. (2016). Europe’s migrant story enters new phase. BBC, 10 May 2016. Available Online: 

Yahoo (2016). The Latest: EU agrees migrant plan to put to Turkey Friday. March 18, 2016. Available Online:

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