At the end of another interminable EU summit in March 2016, the tired heads of government announced that they had found a compromise: The EU-Turkey refugee deal was hailed as a success of EU politics. The goal had been to reduce the number of people coming into Greece via the Eastern Mediterranean migration debate. According to the European Commission, over 850,000 had arrived in Greece in 2015.
The solution seemed simple: The idea was that the Greek authorities should examine whether people arriving in Greece irregularly had a right to asylum in the EU. Those who did not would be returned to Turkey. In return, the EU would accept the same number of Syrian asylum seekers waiting in Turkish refugee camps and resettle them around the bloc. The EU also to provide some €6 billion in funds to Turkey to support the almost four million Syrian refugees in Turkey.
After the deal was announced, the EU was criticized for selling out with regard to its humanitarian values and outsourcing its migration policy to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, just as he was becoming increasingly authoritarian. However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was widely seen as the political driving force behind the deal, defended it in the Bundestag.
She said that there was nothing other that could be done when it came to maritime borders than to discuss the matter with neighbors, if one didn't want to let people drown and give human traffickers the upper hand. "The agreement with Turkey is a precursor for other agreements of this sort,” she said, such as with Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, if one day it had a reasonable government, and other countries if necessary.
Turkey takes in most refugees in the world
Such other agreements failed to emerge, but the deal with Turkey has had some results. In 2020, the number of people arriving irregularly in Greece had fallen to about 15,000. "In the past year, over 90% of Syrians, who have been living in Turkey as refugees for years, stayed there,” explained Gerald Kraus, an expert on migration who was one of the architects of the deal. "Since 2014, Turkey has been the country with the most refugees in the world. It has taken in three times as many Syrians as the whole EU.”
"Thanks to support from the EU hardly any Syrians have made the journey because their children are going to school in their hundreds of thousands and they have access to a health and social system.”
However, many refugees in Turkey continue to live in poverty and not all of the children have access to education. Moreover, the funds from the deal have been used up and aid organizations need more.
Failed migration policy in EU
There are also other reasons why fewer people are arriving in the EU via Greece. Some are using other routes, for example traveling via Libya and Italy, but this is also becoming more difficult. Spain has made special deals with Morocco to send people back to Africa if necessary. Since the Balkan Route was closed and the EU-Turkey deal came into effect, there have been many allegations of human rights violations on the EU's external borders.
According to the Greek authorities' estimates, fewer than 3,000 refugees have been returned to Turkey. The coronavirus pandemic brought the resettlement of Syrian migrants from Turkey to EU member states, which was already very slow, to a complete standstill.
So far, the EU has failed to reform asylum policy to such an extent that migration is regulated in a long-term manner. All attempts have failed because of the idea to redistribute people arriving in the EU among different member states, with resistance coming largely from certain member states in central and eastern Europe.
Shocking conditions in Greece
Moreover, the deal did not envisage that many Greek islands would end up being a final destination for thousands of people. The Greek authorities are unable to process all the asylum applications. Knaus said that it was not realistic to expect "a country which receives more applications per capita than the whole EU to decide quickly who should go back.”
The shocking conditions on the islands, where there were sometimes 40,000 people living in camps designed just for a few thousand became the symbol of the EU's failed migration policy.
A devastating fire at the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos last year drew the world's attention to the humanitarian disaster.
While Greece's new conservative government has sharpened its tone and measures against refugees, Brussels has continued to give millions in funds, but has left Athens largely alone with the crisis.
'A stain on EU rights record'
"The EU-Turkey statement is a stain on the European Union's human rights record and people in search of protection (...) continue to pay the price," said Imogen Sudbury from International Rescue Committee (IRC), who explained that there were still 15,000 people trapped on Greek islands in camps, which were overcrowded and did not have enough provisions. She said that people there were suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts.
"Given the scale of this avoidable crisis, it has become crystal clear that outsourcing the EU's migration management to non-EU-countries is neither a humane, sustainable or workable solution,” she said.
In spring 2020, President Erdogan resorted to blackmail and transported thousands of people to the Greek border. Athens reacted by blocking the border and refusing to allow people to enter. The brutality showed once again that the EU had failed to protect human rights.
Turkey called for the deal to be extended and more funds. It also criticized the fact that promises to ease visa regulations and to introduce a new customs deal were not fulfilled. The EU argued that Ankara's anti-democratic course and the increase of human rights violations in Turkey were one reason for the delay.
The subject of migration will be on the agenda at the upcoming EU summit later this month. Meanwhile, the EU-Turkey deal was tacitly extended until next year.
There are an estimated 100,000 refugees in Greece, some of whom have been there for years. There seems to be very little will to resettle them elsewhere in the EU.