Outsourcing a humanitarian crisis to Turkey – is that the European thing to do?

EU leaders are to send refugees back to Turkey. EPA/Yannis Kolesidis

European countries plan to send thousands of refugees back to Turkey in a deal aimed at preventing people from trying to reach the EU by sea.

In what is being described as a “one in, one out” deal, anyone washing up on the shores of Greece will be sent back to Turkey, with one person being transferred from a Turkish refugee camp in their place.

But the deal, which is yet to be finalised, is flawed from the outset. Denying refugees the right to apply for asylum as they reach the EU is against international humanitarian law. And refusing protection to unarmed people fleeing war and persecution by sending them back to Turkey, a country under threat of a civil war, is unconscionable.

European Union leaders must be both desperate and clueless to pursue this. If the goal is to save the European Union from implosion, the question is on what terms will its unity be maintained?

Challenging European values

The refugee crisis is the biggest challenge the European Union has ever faced. According to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it dwarfs even the eurozone debt problem.

More than 1m refugees fleeing war and persecution, along with some migrants escaping poverty, came to Europe by sea in 2015 and more are expected in 2016, the majority using the dangerous sea route via the Greek islands.

Migrants arrive in Lesbos after a treacherous journey. EPA/Katia Christodoulou

Greece cannot cope with this influx on its own. Its GDP has contracted for eight years in a row and its unemployment is reaching 25% (50% among young people).

Indeed, the task of processing and reviewing the situation of each individual refugee poses a challenge even for Germany, which is in a far stronger position.

Nor is it realistic to expect Greece to patrol its sea borders. Many of its islands are just a few miles from Turkey, so this would, in reality, mean pushing inflatable boats full of people back into the open sea. The European Commission and the UN have rightly spoken out against such inhuman and illegal measures in the past – although Greece was pressured by the EU to close the much safer land route from Turkey by raising a razor wire fence in 2012.

What do the people want?

While there is clearly a need for a collective solution, the EU’s response has been anything but unified. Worse, it has been inconsistent, incoherent and inadequate.

By closing their borders and imposing quotas on the number refugees who can apply for asylum, many EU leaders failed to adhere to the European rules and ignored international laws.

With this latest deal, they are formalising their failed national policies at the EU level, sacrificing the values of humanism as they go. Blame shifting has replaced the solidarity that is supposed to form the basis of the European Union.

The countries on the outer border of the EU, such as Greece, are at risk of becoming de facto holding pens for refugees and migrants escaping war, persecution and poverty. Turkey has agreed to assume this role, in exchange for visas for its 75m people and an easier route into the EU. It will also get billions of euros in aid to take the problem away.

Meanwhile, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is waging a brutal war on Turkey’s Kurdish population and shutting down major newspapers for fear of criticism. This hardly sounds like a “safe third country” for refugees.

Amnesty International has called the move “absurd” and warned that conditions for refugees are terrible in Turkey. Some have even been deported back to Syria, the charity says.

Nor should poorer countries be expected to shoulder the burden of the refugee crisis. Turkey has taken in more than 2.5m refugees since the war in Syria began in 2011. And the situation in refugee camps in neighbouring countries is much worse. In Lebanon, where more than 1m Syrians are living, every third person is a refugee. Jordan is housing more than 600,000 and Iraq more than 245,000. A humanitarian disaster looms, prompting many refugees to seek better a future elsewhere.

Refugee and migratory movements have always challenged European states’ notions of sovereignty, national integrity and cohesion. But at the same time many ordinary European people have always embodied the universal values of humanitarianism and international citizenship. In this crisis, they have refused the state’s claim to a monopoly on care in the face of its manifest incapacity or negligence. So while EU leaders have floundered, local communities are out on the beaches and streets helping the refugees as they arrive.

Send them back? EPA/Filip Singer

Dispossession is often met with indifference and rejection on the part of those who could help. Sending people back to Turkey after they’ve made the perilous sea journey to Greece in dinghies would amount to cruelty. The European Union is the richest trading block on the planet. With half a billion inhabitants it has both the capacity and the duty to protect war refugees.

But as fear displaces compassion, Europeans start to see refugees as a threat to national security, national identity and the stability of their welfare systems. It is therefore important to understand what makes community solidarity projects work, so that this discourse can be counteracted.

The eurozone crisis presented the European Union with an opportunity to rediscover its social mission, to create prosperity for the many rather than the select few. The refugee crisis poses an even greater challenge: of having to live up to its own humanitarian values. A union that is unable to uphold international laws and falls so desperately short of its fundamental principles may not be not worth saving.