Rising tensions between EU and Ankara have put a one-year-old migration deal in the spotlight. It benefits political institutions on both sides, but humanitarian activists say refugees are the ones paying the price.
One year after the European Union and Turkey signed an agreement swapping money for migration control, opinions as to the political and moral benefits and drawbacks of the deal are divided along exactly the same lines they were when it was concluded.
The European Union calls the arrangement a "success," thrilled and relieved at the expedient way in which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cut off the flow of would-be asylum-seekers across the Mediterranean. The Turkish government, for its part, says the EU has not lived up to its promise to grant Turks visa-free travel, a condition Brussels accepted only under duress from Ankara, attaching sufficient requirements to ensure that it was unlikely to happen anytime soon. Humanitarian organizations in their turn say the conditions for migrants and refugees on both the Turkish and EU sides are horrific.
The one thing that's changed significantly is the relationship between European governments and the increasingly hostile regime of Erdogan, who resorts frequently to referring to European governments as "Nazis"and "fascists" when they don't behave according to his politically motivated wishes.
Irked over EU criticism of his bid to consolidate power, Erdogan is threatening to dump the deal, especially the part where Turkey, now classified as a "safe country" for migrants to be returned, would take in those people rejected for EU admission. "What readmission? Forget about it," Erdogan said Thursday, linking his remarks openly to the Dutch decision last weekend to block the Turkish foreign minister from campaigning on Erdogan's behalf in Rotterdam.
So European Commission Spokesman Alexander Winterstein knew well he'd be asked Friday about the one-year assessment of the deal, with regard both to refugees and migrants, and to dealing with Erdogan. He came to the commission's daily briefing equipped with talking points designed to assuage humanitarian consciences.
"Since the agreement there are about a million refugees who have not made the attempt to come to Europe via a dangerous route, who have not given the last money that they and their family are able to scrape together to unscrupulous smugglers," Winterstein said, "and I would like you to think about these people or about the 1,000 refugees who did not die at sea compared to the year before. I think these are the numbers that really count because of the real people - the real fathers, mothers, children - who are being saved."
When the European Commission refers to "saving" people, it means stopping them from leaving Turkey and instead staying in accommodation that's now partially funded by the EU. Winterstein said agreements for 39 projects have already been concluded, including schools and education for 500,000 Syrian children. "We are absolutely committed to continuing making this agreement work," he said.
Former EU Ambassador to Turkey Marc Pierini, while critical of Erdogan's current behavior, is a believer in this agreement. He says that, despite the most recent Erdogan threats and recriminations, he doesn't believe Ankara has any intention of backing out. "The deal is working wonders for Syrian refugees, and the Turkish institutions are very happy with [it]," Pierini told DW. "I'm not saying it's morally fine from a humanitarian standpoint, but it's working fine. [Syrian refugees] get cash, they get education and health care, and the local communities get also help because their hospitals and so on have been overcrowded."
Children at terrible risk
But humanitarian and human rights organizations have nothing even remotely positive to say about the agreement. "One year after the Balkan border closures and the EU-Turkey Statement, which were aimed at stopping mass migration flows, refugee and migrant children face greater risks of deportation, detention, exploitation and deprivation," UNICEF said in a statement. "While there has been a major decrease in the overall numbers of children on the move into Europe since last March, there has been an increase in the threats and distress refugee and migrant children endure."
Amnesty International weighed in, too. "The fact that European leaders are heralding as a 'success' a deal which has caused such immeasurable suffering exposes the fact that the EU-Turkey deal has nothing to do with the protection of refugees and everything to do with keeping them out of Europe," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's Director for Europe. "The EU-Turkey deal is a stain on the collective conscience of Europe," he added.
Save the Children's Sacha Myers has just co-authored a report called "A Tide of Self-Harm and Depression" on living conditions for migrants and asylum-seekers on the Greek islands and the impact on more than 5,000 children stuck there. They are blocked from traveling further on to the Greek mainland or anywhere else while their applications are processed.
'Scared and in despair'
Myers is close to tears recounting the psychological condition of children there, many of whom are traveling alone, in some camps living in containers by themselves. "They're so scared about being in the camp by themselves," Myers told DW from the island of Chios. "They take 24-hour shifts so two stay awake and make sure they're protected but there have been attacks," she said. "Unfortunately, they've raised these concerns with the police and Save the Children has raised these concerns with the police as well. But no action has been taken, and this is just one example; it's happening in other islands as well."
Amnesty International reports that five refugees, including one child, have died on the island of Lesbos owing to the terrible conditions. Myers said caseworkers have actually witnessed children trying to commit suicide out of despair.
Myers blames a deterioration in the camps on the EU-Turkey agreement, because she feels it presupposes negative responses to asylum applications and then the deportation of rejected applicants back to Turkey, where she disputes the EU assessment that the country is a "safe" place for them to be.
She wishes the EU elites touting the agreement would come take a walk through the Greek camps with her before they call it a success. "Everyone know awful things are happening in Syria," she said, "but it's so important that people also know the awful things that are happening in Greece right now, and the EU-Turkey deal has a huge part to play in that."