The reckless return of migrants to Turkey is a dangerous time for Europe

Opinion piece (The Independent)
Camino Mortera-Martinez
05 April 2016

Two weeks after the EU signed its boldest, and most reckless, attempt to solve the refugee crisis, Greece has begun to return people to Turkey. Today around 135 men, mainly of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Moroccan origins, have boarded boats from the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios, heading for the Turkish coastal town of Dikili. Each of these men was accompanied by a policeman, according to Frontex, the EU’s border agency.

Deciding how and whether to return migrants to their country of origin or transit is one of the most difficult issues in migration policy. But fair and effective return policies do deter smugglers. By the end of 2015, it had become clear that the EU had lost control of its borders, and that smugglers were benefiting from it. In a desperate attempt to break down the smuggling business, EU leaders resorted to the most unpleasant measure of them all: sending people back.

Because most asylum seekers cross from Turkey to the Aegean islands, Brussels signed a deal with Ankara whereby Greece would return all irregular migrants making their way from Turkey. In exchange for each migrant that Turkey takes back from Greece, the EU will resettle one Syrian refugee already in Turkey into Europe. It is known as a 'one in, one out' policy. Officials in Brussels hope the deal, as unpalatable as it might seem, will help decrease the numbers of people arriving in Europe and ease the current state of panic, granting the space to allow member states to agree on longer lasting measures to deal with refugees.

But to achieve that the EU has twisted the law by deeming Turkey a safe country to return people to. Brussels has angered NGOs and international organisations, and risks rebellions and violent breakouts by desperate refugees stranded in Greece’s ill-equipped detention centres. This is a dangerous time for Europe and its migrants. Meanwhile, the EU has given Turkey all sorts of inducements to help. But Ankara has not managed to shut down migration flows in the past, and nothing prevents Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from asking for more.

It is, of course, far too soon to say whether the deal has had any effect. The number of irregular migrants arriving in Greece did fall for a week after the deal came into force, but it is now rising again. The initial drop was most likely due to poor weather conditions, rather than to the deterrent effect of a deal many asylum seekers do not even know about.

According to first reports, the vast majority of those deported today had not tried to apply for asylum in Greece, so would have been returned anyway. Only two of them were Syrians (the only nationality to which the 'one in, one out’ policy applies) and they allegedly asked to be returned voluntarily. The only way to assess whether the EU-Turkey refugee deal will help ending the crisis is when massive numbers of Syrians are sent back to Turkey and EU member-states start taking in Syrian refugees directly from Turkey. And, so far, efforts to distribute asylum seekers across Europe have not been very successful: less than 1,000 people have been relocated to Europe since September 2015, when the EU agreed to take in 160,000 refugees.

The EU has a lot to lose in this gamble, so it all needs to be worth it. Otherwise, it will be back to square one, and this time, the European project may be in real danger.

Camino Mortera-Martinez is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.