The EU has struck a deal with Turkey designed to stem the flow of Syrian refugees into Europe. It offers Turkey a multi-billion euro aid package to handle refugees and take back refugees who entered the EU from Turkish territory, eventually giving them a legal right to settle and work.
In return, the halted talks on advancing Turkey’s EU membership bid will be jump-started, and the EU will accelerate visa-free access for Turks who want to visit the Schengen area.
The deal certainly looks like a win-win scenario for president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ever-pragmatic counterparts in Europe. Many of them fervently blocked Turkey’s accession to the EU only a few years ago after deciding Turkey’s human rights record was not befitting an EU member state. Now, with the prospect of relief from the refugee crisis, those concerns seem to have been shelved.
For the Turkish government, the deal is a chance to regain popularity, having faced significant criticism over its handling of the October 10 suicide bombing in Ankara that killed at least 99 people. With just weeks to go before a national election, the appeal is obvious.
If the looser visa regulations are realised, Turkey will effectively be buying its way into the EU. That would probably swing the election for Erdoğan’s party, the AKP.
While the deal offers a certain amount of respite for Europe, it’s highly unlikely the money on offer will be enough to make it feasible for Turkey to take hundreds of thousands more refugees. Worse still, making it legal for millions of Syrians to settle and work in Turkey might only create further turmoil.
As a route into Europe, Turkey is a particularly important player in the migration crisis. There are already 1.7m Syrian refugees living there, meaning Turkey is host to more foreign refugees than any other country.
Turkey has opened its borders and granted Syrians free health services and permission to stay for unlimited duration. The trouble is, they are desperate to leave.
Life is also difficult for them because of their legal status. Turkey is a signatory to the Geneva convention but has maintained what is called a geographical limitation, which grants asylum rights only to Europeans.
Syrians are allowed to stay in Turkey for an unlimited time – but as as guests, not as refugees. They don’t have guaranteed rights to social security, health services, education or employment. All this is currently offered to them as a gesture of goodwill on a temporary basis, but this state of uncertainty drives them to seek asylum in Europe. Most Syrians know they cannot go home but they don’t want to be a guest in Turkey for the rest of their lives.
Millions of homeless Syrians in Turkey work illegally for below minimum wage and without any social security, driving Turks out of the labour market. In early 2015, Turkey decided to issue temporary work permits to some of its Syrian refugees to clamp down on black market employment but most don’t have their passports to present to officials so they cannot be given a temporary residency permit. Those who do not hold a residency permit cannot apply for a work permit either.
A divisive deal
The potential political repercussions are even more worrying. Many Turks apparently believe that Syrians who originally escaped from the Assad regime are actually quite sympathetic towards Erdoğan. Popular anger at the Turkish president is only increasing, and could have implications for his supporters – or even people perceived to support him.
Ideological rifts and sectarianism have been on the rise, and the state is once again at war with the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) – a violent mess all too reminiscent of the events that have torn Syria apart.
However good its intentions, the EU is effectively backing the AKP government, despite previously accusing it of violating the most fundamental human rights. As such, the EU countries should not be surprised if they soon have to cope with hundreds of thousands more illegal refugees trying to leave Turkey. These might even be Turks and Kurds escaping the authoritarian rule of the AKP government. European countries might be enthusiastic about sending Syrians to Turkey, but are they ready for millions of Turks to head in their direction as a result?