While Turkey and the EU have cooperated on the issue of migration within the scope of a bilateral agreement of 18 March 2016, the future of their collective policy is in question with the prospective deluge of migrants from Afghanistan.
Turkey, a bridge between the Middle East and Europe, is the most preferred transit route for migrants and refugees from the Middle East. Its unique geopolitical position makes the country a crucial part of the migrant and refugee flow from the turbulent region.
The Middle East is home to one of the worst conflicts of the decade in Syria and not too far from the region is Afghanistan, another conflict zone. While Syria is the top first, Afghanistan is the third refugee origin country in the world according to UNHCR data, and the outflow of migrants and refugees from the region is not expected to drop anytime soon.
With the Taliban seizing power in Afghanistan, the world waits in anticipation for Afghans trying to leave the country once the Taliban loosens its grip on the country’s borders. It is feared that the outflow will escalate into a new migration crisis.
Turkey’s geopolitical and strategic importance in this matter makes the country a critical aspect of the EU’s migration policy despite not being an EU member country. Turkey, a candidate country of the EU since 1999, has been in close cooperation with the EU for the control of migrant and refugee flow from the East.
With the Turkey-EU Agreement of 18 March 2016, also known as the EU-Turkey Statement, Turkey shouldered a substantial part of the refugee inflow that crippled Europe during the European refugee crisis.
As per the obligations of the agreement, Turkey housed over four million Syrian refugees, many of whom were on the way to Europe while the rest chose Turkey as their destination country.
How the EU violates the migration policy
According to the agreement, the EU was to reciprocate by extending aid to the refugees in Turkey and supporting Turkey with efforts to strengthen the country’s means to battle the refugee crisis mainly through funding and building institutional capacity. The agreement served to decrease irregular immigration and increased the quality of help toward migrants.
The EU had also promised Turkey to update the Customs Union, lift the visa requirement for Turkish citizens travelling to the Schengen Area, and facilitate Turkey’s accession process within the scope of the agreement.
The agreement also outlined a 1:1 scheme for resettlement, meaning a Syrian refugee from Greece would resettle in Turkey for each refugee resettled in the EU. According to Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management, up until 16 September 2021, 30,184 Syrian refugees were resettled to the EU in contrast to over 4 million refugees in Turkey.
The EU has long been criticised for not holding up their end of the deal and using Turkey as a buffer against refugees. Turkish citizens still do not benefit from promises such as visa liberation, which was initially predicted to take place by July 2016.
Currently, the anticipation of an influx of Afghan refugees is looming over the international arena. With the Turkey-EU agreement still in place, the EU’s expectations from Turkey persist.
In an interview on September 7th, the Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had expressed that Turkey could no longer shoulder an influx of migrants and that the Turkey-EU Agreement of 18 March 2016 needed revision. On September 15th, President Erdogan also brought up this issue in a conversation with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Turkey’s parliament speaker Mustafa Sentop, in a recent statement, reiterated this concern and criticised the EU for not taking on a “sufficient number of migrants” and holding back on financial obligations.
Housing more refugees than any other country, Turkey had reached a tipping point in its migration policy months ago. In April, President Erdogan had discussed the necessity of a revision of the agreement with Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission head, and Charles Michel, the EU foreign policy chief.
It is now the EU’s turn to take action. However, according to Cavusoglu, the EU has utilized a “delaying tactic” and is yet to respond.
While the future of the EU-Turkey agreement grows increasingly unclear, one thing is certain. If the EU wants to keep the inflow of refugees under control, recognizing Turkey’s current stance regarding migration and taking suitable action is necessary.