On 28th of February 2020, Turkish President Erdogan announced that the border with the EU would be opened. The one-sided opening of the border took place in response to the intensifying civil war in Syria and was seen as a breach of the EU-Turkey-Deal adopted in 2016. As a result, thousands of people made their way to the Greek-Turkish border river Evros or were forced onto buses and taken there. However, they were violently prevented from crossing the border. While Erdogan instrumentalised the refugees as political bargaining counter, the EU reacted with massive violence against the people seeking protection [1]. There were brutal pushbacks, i.e. the illegal pushing back of migrants by Greek authorities. Rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades, even live ammunition were used as part of the "border protection". In the course of this violence, Muhammad Gulzar from Pakistan and Muhammad al-Arab from Syria were shot dead, most likely by Greek border guards [2]. Over the following months, the Aegean became a strongly militarised zone, even the right to asylum was temporarily suspended by the Greek government, pushbacks became an daily routine at sea, and the situation in the camps on the Greek islands worsened a lot. 

"These bad conditions are deliberate. It is a policy of deterrence. The people are extras in a drama of deterrence," said recently Gerald Knaus, founder of the think tank "European Stability Initiative" (ESI), who is considered one of the architects of the EU-Turkey deal of 2016 [3]. As correct as this assessment is, it would be wrong to assume that the political instrumentalisation of refugees is primarily due to Erdogan's breach of the EU-Turkey-Deal. The fact that people on the move are repeatedly used as pawns in a perfidious political game of power was already ensured by the agreement itself.

The so-called EU-Turkey-Deal, under which the declaration of the EU member states and Turkey published in 2016 is also known, basically fits into a series of agreements of the EU with third party countries that aim to systematically control and prevent migration [4]. Practically every provision of the agreement constitutes a violation of the right to asylum as defined in international conventions (cf. Art. 3 ECHR, Art. 18/19 CFR, Art. 32/33 Geneva Refugee Convention, Art. 14 UDHR).

The deal initially provided that arriving people on the Greek islands from the 20th of March 2016 would be rejected as "inadmissible" and returned to Turkey, which had been declared a safe third party country [5]. In return, the EU member states committed to take in one Syrian refugee for every person repatriated. The "one-to-one" rule in dealing with Syrian refugees, is one of the most cynical provisions of the agreement [6]. At the same time, it was agreed that asylum seekers should no longer leave the Greek islands. Humanitarian "catastrophes" such as those in the old and new Moria camps on Lesvos can also be traced back to these political decisions and laid their foundation.

The agreement had a direct impact on the situation of those fleeing at the EU's external border: After the deal came into force, the numbers of arrivals on the Greek islands dropped massively [7]. This was mainly a consequence of the significantly increased presence of Turkish border patrol at the Turkish coast. In order to prevent flight attempts, NATO ships systematically spied on the coastal areas and passed the information on to the Turkish authorities, who then carried out so-called illegal pullbacks [8]. Meanwhile, the situation on the Greek islands deteriorated massively. As a result of the deal, camps like Moria increasingly mutated into open-air prisons devoiding any human dignity. Thousands of Frontex staff were hastily deployed to reinforce Greek personnel in order to intensify the militarisation of the border [9].

At the same time, the recognition of Turkey as a safe "third party country" continues to have a massive impact on the situation of fleeing Syrians. The rejection of asylum seekers as "inadmissible" is practically only applied to them [10]. This is because in Turkey the Geneva Refugee Conventions do not apply or only apply to a limited extent to most protection seekers [11]. Protection seekers from Syria in particular, but also from Iraq and Afghanistan, are affected. Meanwhile, human rights violations are part of everyday life in allegedly safe Turkey. Illegal deportations take place into war zones, journalists and human rights activists are regularly imprisoned, not to mention the ongoing war against the Kurdish population. Despite this situation, the EU maintains to claim Turkey as a safe country, in order to enable a restrictive migration control.

Over 3.6 million Syrians currently live in Turkey [12]. No other country in the world hosts more. Turkey repeatedly deports Syrians to their homecountry, which has been plagued by civil war for more than 10 years now. The Turkish government pursues the long-term goal of resettling refugees in a Turkish-controlled area in Syria. In Turkey itself, Syrian refugees often live in extremely precarious conditions, forced to live in ramshackle flats or on the street and have hardly any access to social infrastructure [13].

Today marks the 5th anniversary of the EU-Turkey deal. It went down in the rather shameful history of European border policy as the "refugee deal". Although, the EU repeatedly invokes a common European identity, shaped by enlightenment and humanism, the expression "deal" describes quite clearly the true attitude of the EU when it comes to enforcing normative guidelines. Coming to an understanding with a nationalist despot allows both parties to profit. Refugees are not seen as individuals in need of protection, but as a common problem to be eliminated. They are the victims of an inhumane border policy, in which the EU is visibly abandoning its own founding idea ("A Europe of Peace").

Massive, violent repression is the sad daily reality of people on the move. They do not end at or within European borders. Not only third party countries like Turkey contribute to this situation, but also European institutions. In doing so, they not only act against their own ideals, but above all against their own laws [14]. Five years later, the EU-Turkey deal must be interpreted as an early signpost for this foreclosure policy. Its aim is still to prevent people on the move from reaching European soil at all costs and to deny them the protection and rights to which they are entitled.

[1] Theurich, Jan/Margrit Wicke (2021): no more morias: Lesbos und die europäsiche Abschottungspolitik. Dresden: Dunya Collective/Sächsischer Flüchtlingsrat e.v.

[2] https://forensic-architecture.org/investigation/the-killing-of-muhammad-gulzar

[3] https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/migrationsexperte-zur-lage-der-fluechtlinge-auf-lesbos.694.de.html?dram:article_id=483913

[4] Jakob, Christian/Schlindwein, Simone (2017): Diktatoren als Türsteher Europas. Wie die EU ihre Grenzen nach Afrika verlagert. Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag. 

[5] https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/suche/faq-eu-tuerkei-erklaerung-1728136

[6] https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii110/articles/stathis-kouvelakis-borderland

[7] https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean

[8] https://www.proasyl.de/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/EU-Türkei-Broschüre-END.pdf

[9] https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii110/articles/stathis-kouvelakis-borderland

[10] https://www.migazin.de/2021/03/15/das-versagen-jahre-flucht-syrien/#easy-footnote-bottom-7-124164

[11] https://www.proasyl.de/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/PA_Broschuere_EU-Tuerkei_Mai16_webEND.pdf

[12] https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/syria/location/113

[13] https://www.proasyl.de/news/die-tuerkei-kein-sicheres-land-fuer-fluechtlinge/

[14] https://verfassungsblog.de/frontex-and-the-duty-to-respect-and-protect-human-rights/

Mare Liberum e.V.

Gneisenaustraße 2a
10961 Berlin

Account for Donations

Mare Liberum e.V.
IBAN: DE71430609671221431300
BIC: GENODEM1GLS