Op-Ed: The wrong side of history? A missed opportunity to lead on a human-rights-led response to mixed migration between Turkey and Greece

In 2016, during the negotiation of what is commonly known today as the “EU-Turkey deal” we highlighted the danger that as a result of this deal, refugees and migrants could be turned into bargaining chips, an approach which on previous occasions has proved to be harmful for migrants, ineffective, and ultimately counter-productive. Already in 2016, Turkish President Erdogan reportedly said he could “open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and put the refugees on buses”. He has now acted upon this threat, shortly after dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib (Syria). Turkey attempts to put pressure on the EU and NATO to get support for its operation in Idlib, where it aims to create a ‘safe zone’ for the repatriation of Syrian refugees. Moreover, close to a million Syrians have been displaced by conflict escalation in northwest Syria since December 2019 and Turkey wants to prevent additional large numbers of refugees from Syria crossing its southern border.

Recent developments in Greece seem to show that the EU-Turkey deal has indeed repeated mistakes from earlier deals in other contexts. Four years into the multi-billion euro deal we seem to be back at square one, with thousands of migrants and refugees pressing at the EU border and many more stuck in horrendous conditions in makeshift camps in the Greek islands, where anti-migration sentiments continue to rise.

The deal has put the EU in a very challenging negotiating position. The threat of a new crisis at its external border leaves the newly elected Commission feeling as if they have little option but to express readiness to discuss with Ankara “where support might be needed and what is the right basis to start a dialogue”. However, as the Dutch Prime Minister put it, the EU risks having to start this negotiation with “a knife at its throat”.

However, what we are witnessing in Greece may not just be the result of a questionable deal with an EU neighbour, but rather yet another example of a broader, more concerning, downward spiral of moral responsibility and the derogation of international obligations in the management of migration. What is happening in Greece could be considered as another chapter of what we – in the Mixed Migration Review 2019 have called “the normalization of the extreme”, a creeping normalization of extreme policies and actions, unimaginable only a short time ago, which we have been witnessing in recent years. As argued in a February 2019 Op-ed by MMC – though it is a global phenomenon – many of these actions have taken place in the Mediterranean Sea and at Europe’s external borders. As we concluded a year ago, the moral and legal compromises are often deadly and undermine many values European countries pretend to espouse.

In recent days we have seen a video of the Greek Coast Guard firing live ammunition towards a dinghy full of migrants and refugees, beating them with sticks and making dangerous manoeuvres in  an effort to prevent them from reaching the Greek coast. The Foreign Press Association of Greece denounced coordinated attacks against and intimidation of journalists covering the arrival of refugees and migrants in Lesvos. On Sunday 1 March, the Greek Army announced its intention to conduct drills with live ammunition at the land border with Turkey, in Evros. The same day the Greek Prime Minister announced on Twitter the temporary suspension on any new asylum application for a period of one month. This was immediately followed by Hungary’s announcement to suspend the right to seek asylum based on a “certain link between coronavirus and illegal migrants”, although Hungary’s national security advisor also added they are sending military and police reinforcements to the country’s borders due to the situation on the Turkey-Greece border. On the Turkish side we are witnessing what some commentators called a ‘weaponisation of refugees’, with authorities reportedly transporting people to the border and spreading false information about the tens of thousands who have already crossed into Greece.

While refugees at the border are teargassed and spend the night in freezing conditions, top EU officials issued statements on Twitter saying the top priority is to support Greece and Bulgaria and to deploy additional Frontex border guards. After a visit to the border, EU officials praised Greece for acting as a ‘shield’ and announced hundreds of millions for “a rapid border intervention” squad including one offshore vessel, six coastal patrol boats, two helicopters, one aircraft, three thermal-vision vehicles, as well as 100 border guards to reinforce 530 Greek officers at land and sea borders. The EU is paying an extremely high moral price in its desire to protect its borders and control mixed migration flows, to the extent of neglecting basic human rights and fundamental principles of international protection.

The situation at Europe’s external border, with still a relatively small number of 13,000 people, is creating a full-on political crisis, attracts blanket media coverage and sees top European officials visiting the border, but it diverts attention away from the real crisis elsewhere. Almost nine years on, the Syrian conflict has displaced more than half of the population, with 961,000 newly displaced people between 1st of December and 1st of March as a consequence of the increased and intensified hostilities in North West Syria. The conflict claimed the lives of thousands and left 11.7 million people in need of assistance inside the country. Families are finding themselves struggling to survive amid increasingly dire conditions. In an era of intense discussion about the “root causes” of migration and displacement, diverting attention from a conflict generating millions of refugees because a few thousand have gathered at the gates of Europe seems, to say the least, paradoxical.

So, what to do now with the situation on the Greece-Turkey border? The first priority should be the protection of the vulnerable people who are stranded at the border and upholding the individual right to seek asylum. Then, the EU should live up to earlier promises of resettlement of refugees from Turkey and solidarity and responsibility-sharing within the EU and, additionally, offer more support towards solutions for Syrian refugees in Turkey and other major hosting countries in the region.

Much of this could have been achieved already. As argued in the Mixed Migration Review 2019, a crisis can be a moment of truth, a turning-point when fundamental choices are made, especially after the initial crisis is under control. Unfortunately, this did not happen after the crisis in Greece in 2015. The years between 2016 and now, with much lower arrival figures in Greece, should have been used to develop longer-term, sustainable and comprehensive approaches to displacement and migration.

Unfortunately, it has again become very difficult to discuss comprehensive solutions in a level-headed way, as we are back in “crisis” mode, with rising tensions and all actors involved flexing muscles in order to maintain credibility with their constituencies and to prepare for future negotiations. This is a missed opportunity to develop more sustainable and more coherent approaches, based on solidarity, responsibility sharing, resettlement and complementary legal pathways for refugees and migrants.

It is a missed opportunity to once again allow a so-called ‘refugee crisis’ at Europe’s borders to divert energy and attention away from encouraging all actors in Syria to refrain from violence against citizens, agree on a ceasefire, find a political solution and ensure humanitarian assistance to those affected and displaced by war.

Europe has also missed the opportunity to send a message to its citizens that it has regained control over a difficult situation, while simultaneously showing leadership in upholding the highest standards of humanity and application of human rights law in its refugee and migration policies.