Can Turkey stem the refugee tide?

After lengthy negotiations, Ankara and the EU finalised their refugee deal. Now comes the hard part.

Some European countries, including Germany, would like to set up refugee processing centres within Turkey, writes Lepeska [EPA]

Just over two weeks ago in an exclusive interview, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a chill through Europe. “What would happen if these 2.2 million refugees get out of Turkey and start marching towards the EU,” he wondered, referring to the 28-nation European Union.

The next day a group of jihadis killed 130 people in Paris. When the world learned that one of the attackers had apparently posed as a Syrian refugee to travel from Turkey to Greece and into France, Erdogan’s suggestion morphed for many into something of a doomsday scenario.

EU seeks deal with Turkey to curb refugee crisis

Many EU states quickly established temporary border controls, which threaten to end the bloc’s 20-year-old open border system, known as Schengen.

Still the migrants streamed in, up to 5,000 a day. “We cannot accommodate any more refugees in Europe,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls pressed last week. “That’s not possible.”

Game changer?

That desperation fuelled negotiations with Turkey, which led on Sunday to an agreement that aims to improve the lives of refugees in Turkey in order to turn illegal migration into – much slower – legal migration.

Erdogan leveraged the threat, and Europe bent over backwards to accommodate his demands, offering $3.2bn in refugee aid, visa-free travel across the 28-nation EU, and speeded up accession talks for Turkey.

If Turkey were to embrace its inner Australia and put its refugees on the fast track to asylum and potential citizenship, that could change the game.


In return, Turkey will tighten border controls, particularly in the Aegean Sea – the main route for refugees and migrants heading to Europe. It will also allow the EU to send back thousands of migrants and give refugees in Turkey the right to work and greater access to education.

As Erdogan continued to deal with the fallout from Turkey’s recent downing of a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian border, Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu led the delegation to Brussels, saying the deal marked a “historic day” for Turkey-EU relations.

It’s likely to improve strained ties, but mistrust lingers. European officials, for instance, have stressed that their willingness to deliver the promised benefits hinges on Turkey’s compliance. Sticking points remain, such as the disbursal of the $3.2bn, just $530m of which will come from the EU budget. Several member states dragged their feet on committing to their share of the remaining funds.

In addition, some European countries, including Germany, would like to set up refugee processing centres within Turkey, like those already operating in Italy and Greece. Turkey has yet to agree.

Accession talks will resume this month. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Turkey needs to show progress in human rights, media freedom, and in reaching peace with the Kurds, and promised to engage in high-level dialogue with Turkish officials on every key issue.

The winners

The biggest winners are likely to be the nearly three million refugees in Turkey (Syrians, plus Iraqis, Afghanis, Iranians and some from troubled African nations). Officially, they are not refugees, but temporary guests. They cannot legally join the workforce nor apply for asylum, as they would in European countries such as Germany and Sweden.

Some live in well-run refugee camps, while others have started businesses and are doing fine. But the vast majority struggle to get by, taking under-the-table jobs – working in restaurants, in construction, or in the fields, including many children – and living in cramped, inadequate housing, or on the street.

Also read: HRW: Turkey pushing back Syrian refugees at border

In recent months Turkey has quietly stopped accepting more refugees, while aid funding has declined sharply in the past year, cutting crucial aid programmes. Just last week Amnesty International found that Ankara had deported dozens of Syrians back to Syria, putting them at risk of “serious human rights abuse”. Many face arbitrary detention as well, according to Amnesty researchers.

It’s easy to see why many might seek a better life in Europe. To persuade them to stay, Turkey must change their legal status, provide opportunities, and give them access to services – and that’s primarily what this deal is about.

Syrian refugees stay in makeshift tents at Bahcelievler district in Istanbul [EPA]
Syrian refugees stay in makeshift tents at Bahcelievler district in Istanbul [EPA]

“We do not expect anyone to guard our borders for us,” European Council President Donald Tusk said in Brussels. “That can and should only be done by Europeans. But we expect a major step towards changing the rules of the game when it comes to stemming the migration flow that is coming to the EU via Turkey.”

Without Ankara’s commitment, EU efforts to stem the tide will fail. Yet, even with EU backing, is Turkey capable of stopping, or significantly slowing, the refugee departures? To reach Europe, particularly Greece, a refugee just needs $1,000 and a bit of luck.

Will it work?

It remains to be seen whether this deal will alter that calculation. Europe is putting its trust in Ankara, but Turkey’s coastguard is understaffed, with officers working day-long shifts of late, according to recent reports. They seem largely unable to deal with the complex tasks at hand – dismantling smuggling networks, saving lives at sea, and housing arrested would-be migrants.

Also read: The EU’s stinking refugee deal with Turkey

There have been signs of progress. Last week an Istanbul court issued arrest warrants for 16 people accused of smuggling migrants into Europe. Days earlier, at Istanbul’s main airport, Turkey arrested and later deported eight Moroccans carrying documents that suggested they had planned to follow the migrant route into Europe and execute a terrorist attack.

Also, Turkish and Greek officials have agreed to collaborate on tracking smugglers near the border areas and increase cooperation between their respective coastguards.


“There is no recipe to make this stop,” said Metin Corabatir, president of the Research Centre on Asylum and Migration, in Ankara last week. “It is really difficult to physically stop them, and as you take more preventive measures, people put themselves at greater risk.”

If Turkey were to embrace its inner Australia and put its refugees on the fast track to asylum and potential citizenship, that could change the game. Erdogan has repeatedly lauded his country’s generosity and facility in responding to the crush of refugees. “We have not closed our doors in the face of these refugees,” he said at the Atlantic Council’s recent energy summit in Istanbul. “We have opened our doors.”

Turkey’s president now has a chance to prove his country is willing to take the next step and make its guests feel at home. The clock is ticking.

David Lepeska, is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. His work focuses on Turkey and the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.