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Migrants block the railway track at the Greek-Macedonian border
Image: Reuters/M. Djurica

'Avoiding the problem'

Martin Kuebler, Brussels
March 6, 2016

On Monday, EU officials are due to meet with Turkey to discuss efforts to curb migrant flows coming into Europe. But there are concerns with the EU's plans to rely on Turkey, says human rights expert Catherine Woollard.


DW: In his diplomatic tour of Greece and the region this week ahead of the EU migration summit with Turkey on Monday, EU Council President Donald Tusk issued a warning to economic migrants not to come to Europe. He also reprimanded European countries that have taken unilateral steps to tackle the crisis. Is this the start of a new phase in the EU's response?

Catherine Woollard: We were quite shocked to see Tusk's comments about economic migrants. As the saying goes, no one is illegal, and the stigmatization of various types of migrants is problematic. In addition, this is a misrepresentation of the nature of migration flows. But some of Tusk's recent comments suggest that we may be moving into a phase of tougher enforcement of existing EU standards on the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers, and I think to make progress in the end that may be necessary.

More concrete solutions are now being proposed, but I don't think we'll see an exit from the panic and crisis mode of European policymaking. And until we have a greater sense of solidarity among member states, I don't think that that's likely to change. One of our main recommendations is a comprehensive system of relocation across EU member states, but in order for that to happen there is going to have to be some sort of way to enforce it in the recalcitrant member states. There are those who aren't shouldering their responsibilities - and it's not just a question of East versus West.

Map of Europe
Migrants are using a variety of routes to reach Europe

Will the EU's offer of 700 million euros ($760 million) in emergency aid to Greece and other member countries, announced Wednesday, make enough of a difference?

The new [aid program], as we understand it, will be dealing with immediate humanitarian needs. But if we've arrived at the situation where we need a humanitarian program for use within the European Union, then this is a very tragic development.

One part of the current proposals on the table is an attempt to contain people in Greece and bolster the country's capacity for refugees and migrants, supporting humanitarian action there. But we're concerned that conditions in Greece for refugees are still not of an adequate standard, so that strategy is problematic - particularly if it includes the resumption of Dublin transfers to Greece from other member states. [Under the Dublin agreement, asylum applications must be processed by the country where a person first arrives.] Our information from Greece shows that there has been an increase in places in reception centers and other improvements, but the situation isn't yet adequate.

'People will continue to arrive in Greece'

Catherine Woollard
People have given up hope of seeing any kind of solution in Syria: WoollardImage: ECRE

On Friday, the EU unveiled plans to create an EU coast guard, strengthen Greece's external borders and help Turkey stem the flow of migrants. What do you make of them?

The idea of strengthening borders to keep people out is not going to work in a situation where the vast majority of people are fleeing either the ultraviolent conflict in Syria, which shows no sign of abating, or the state failure and chaos in Afghanistan and Iraq. People will continue to arrive in Greece, and they'll find other routes if the Aegean Sea route is blocked off.

With the changing weather, the Mediterranean routes are once again becoming more popular, driven by organized crime networks. If one route is blocked, they'll simply displace their activity to another area. The best way to deal with these organized crime networks is to reduce the need for their services and resettle people in other ways. Massive resettlement programs that take people directly from Syria and the region, and not just to Europe but globally, has to be part of the answer to stop people from taking this very risky journey across the Mediterranean Sea.

With the recent increase in women and children among the migrants and refugees headed to Europe, are we starting to see a new dimension to Europe's worst migration crisis since World War II?

Absolutely. People have perhaps just given up hope of seeing any kind of solution in Syria. The people who were holding on - families, young children, and also older generations - are also being forced to leave. There are particular risks for women and children, particularly those who are in the hands of smugglers, those who are making perilous journeys or who are stuck in camps - they are at risk of exploitation in many ways.

'EU strategy to externalize the problem'

Meeting with Turkish officials, Tusk spoke of the EU's "good and growing cooperation" with Turkey in preventing "irregular migration." Is this the best way for Europe to tackle the crisis?

Turkey is crucial to the response to this issue, and not least because the country hosts 2.7 million refugees. [But] there is a risk that this is part of an EU strategy to externalize the problem by, indirectly, paying Turkey to deal with refugees, and then putting that into practice through readmission agreements and attempts to contain people within Turkey.

EU-Turkey relations have become very transactional. It's a process of dealmaking, whereby Turkey is offered different concessions and benefits in order to take on what is Europe's and the EU's responsibility. Benefits include things like increasing NATO involvement in the Syrian conflict, visa liberalization for its citizens in the EU, and the reopening of EU accession discussions. We're likely to hear announcements at the summit next week in that regard, even the opening of new chapters [in EU accession talks] and other quite concrete steps.

The key problem is simply that Turkey is already carrying a large burden, and 3 billion euros (around $3.3 billion) from the EU doesn't go very far when you have 2.7 million refugees within the country. International agencies are also part of the response there, but the strain on Turkey is already huge.

We also have concerns about the moves to designate Turkey as a safe country. Based on evidence from our members working in Turkey, but also from the European Parliament and the UN Refugee Agency, Turkey isn't safe for refugees and for other migrant populations. Turkey has only selectively implemented the UN refugee convention, not to mention other issues. Clearly, designating Turkey as a safe country and returning people there poses multiple problems. Overall, we're concerned that Turkey will adopt harsh measures, such as detention, at the expense of human rights.

Refugee camps for Syrians near the Turkish border at Syria
Turkey has taken in more than 2.7 million refugees, including at this camp on the border with SyriaImage: picture alliance/ZUMA Press/

Do you expect much progress from Monday's summit, or the EU leaders' summit later this month?

At the moment, I don't think that's likely. Things may potentially move forward, for instance with the European Commission's plans for a post-Dublin system and a new or reformulated refugee and asylum policy framework. We also hope to see progress on relocation, but I think that would depend on the willingness of the EU member states.

But we're concerned that the level of ambition and [the contents] of that framework won't be adequate. The key point for us is that respect for the human rights of refugees and other migrants needs to remain at the heart of the EU approach, and we fear that may not be the case.

Catherine Woollard is the secretary general at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, based in Brussels. She has worked in the NGO sector since 2003, with a focus on human rights, security, conflict prevention and governance reform.

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