While a cold and tense Brussels was in the grip of Abdesallam’s arrest, on the other side of town, the European leaders were finalising their agreement with Turkey. It had been a tough two days, with Turkey’s Prime Minister Davutoglu arriving under intense pressure to make a deal. And while the summit had been ongoing, President Erdogan had lambasted the EU for hypocrisy regarding its stance on PKK demonstrations. A deal had to be forthcoming on refugees, travel, and future accession plans.
In the end, the 18th March agreement was concluded, named the ‘1 in, 1 out’ deal. For the price of 6bn EUR, visa-free travel, and the opening of Chapter 33 (‘financial and budgetary provisions’), Turkey would take back any irregular migrants, while the EU would resettle a Syrian refugee in Turkey: 1-in-1-out.
The fine print of the deal however sheds some light on the details, which has already been attacked for its cynicism by human rights organisations. The EU Council states that Turkey will provide a ‘rapid return of all migrants not in need of protection’. Read: all non-Syrians.
The Council adds that Turkey also promises to ‘take back all irregular migrants intercepted in Turkish waters’.
Two words stand out. The first one is ‘irregular’. As any asylum or immigration specialist will explain, a ‘regular’ migrant does not exist. One is either in need of protection, or one is not.
‘Migrants intercepted on sea – even those in need of protection – will probably be sent back’
What the EU seems to be saying – and here is where the word ‘intercepted’ comes in – is that migrants intercepted on sea are in a highly irregular position. So, even if these refugees would qualify for protection, the mere fact of them having been found at sea – in or out of a boat -marks them for immediate return to Turkey.
The latest figures from the International Organisation for Migration are staggering: 131 847 refugees reached the Greek islands between January 1, 2016 and March 10th. Approximately 10,000 per week.
In implementing the ‘1in, 1out’ deal, the EU stands before a Herculean task. Thousands of refugees will have to be transferred back to the Turkish mainland on a weekly basis. How that will happen is not clear, nor does any plan seem to be in operation at the time of writing.
Frontex, the EU border agency, currently only has 13 patrol vessels and 2 helicopters, while the Turkish and Greek coastguards are overwhelmed. On Frontex’s website, there is an urgent call for 1500 police guards. NATO is now providing ‘intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance’. On the sidelines of the Brussels summit, there were suggestions to enlarge NATO’s role.
‘The EU stands before one of its most formidable tasks’
Sigh of relief
Will it work? No doubt the closing of the Balkan route has provided some calm and respite to the countries North of Greece. Most politicians in Eastern European capitals are heaving a sigh of relief.
Greece itself has been left to its own. The borders south of Macedonia are barely holding.
Logistically, the EU stands before one of its most formidable tasks. It will be a break-or-make challenge: if it works, the political union across Europe is saved, albeit with serious bruises; if it fails, Europe will find itself in uncharted, highly volatile political territory.
Left to wait amidst all this in cold, makeshift camps are the thousands of asylum seekers, personal tragedies lost in a sea of figures and stats.