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Oct 27, 2015
The sealing of Europe’s borders

The sealing of Europe’s borders

"Merkel’s visit to Erdogan and the sealing of Europe’s borders"

By: Matthias Flug


Last week Sunday on the 18th of October, German chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Istanbul for talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, concerning the current refugee crisis. During her visit, Merkel officially presented to the Turkish president - and gave further political weight to - the action plan, which EU leaders had agreed upon at the fourth EU summit last week Thursday with regards to Turkey.

The EU’s action plan: Brussels will grant Turkey up to €3bn and will ease current visa restrictions for Turkish nationals, if Turkey in return helps to reduce the number of refugees and migrants currently entering the EU. In order for Ankara to achieve this, the EU proposes two main measures:

Firstly, Turkey should at least use part of the proposed €3bn to improve the conditions in the country’s refugee camps to reduce the incentive for refugees to continue their journey to Europe. Secondly, a readmission agreement between Turkey and the EU, which has been concluded already in 2014 - but is not yet applicable – shall enter into force by 2016. This readmission agreement inter alia states that every third country national who crossed through Turkey and entered the EU ‘illegally’ can be sent back to Turkey and vice versa.

Although Merkel presents the talks with Erdogan, and especially the possible grant of €3bn, as an act of solidarity with Turkey - a country which faces the challenge of hosting up to 2 million refugees - a closer look at the proposed deal reveals how it is just another measure on the part of the EU to seal off its borders with severe consequences for refugees from the MENA region.

The readmission agreement:

A readmission agreement between Turkey and the EU was concluded in 2014 - quite unnoticed from the international press - stating that any national from the EU or Turkey who illegally enters the territory of the other can be sent back to his country of origin. Moreover, the agreement further extends to third country nationals who cross from Turkey illegally into the EU or vice versa, reading that: ‘all third-country nationals or stateless persons who do not, or who no longer, fulfill the conditions in force for entry to, presence in, or residence on, the territory of the requesting {EU} Member State’, shall be readmitted by Turkey. Yet, the readmission agreement itself states that the provisions covering third country nationals should only become applicable three years after the agreement entered into force. Amid the current refugee crisis, however, EU leaders are pushing for the implementation of the provisions covering third country nationals already by 2016 and expect Turkey’s cooperation on the matter.

While the readmission agreement allows for the removal and readmission of third country nationals, the EU is nevertheless conscious of its responsibilities under international law and the Refugee Convention in particular, so that Article 18 of the agreement states: ‘the application of the present Agreement shall be without prejudice to the rights and procedural guarantees of persons applying for asylum {…} and in particular with regard to the right to remain in the Member State pending the examination of the application.’

Thus, the right to seek asylum in the EU seems to be unaffected by the readmission agreement with Turkey, which poses the question of what the agreement would really change for refugees from the MENA region, attempting to seek asylum in Europe?

The ‘safe country of origin concept’ and the consequences of the readmission agreement:

Turkey is the main transit country for refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq who are attempting to seek refuge within the EU and thus of great strategic importance to Brussels and its attempt to stem the flow of refugees reaching European territory.

While the readmission agreement does not deny refugees the right to seek asylum within the EU it would nevertheless do one thing: declare Turkey to be a safe country of origin, a status which the EU grants to all countries it deems to be ‘safe’ and free from political persecution. For Turkey, to be granted this safe country of origin status is a necessary precondition in order for the readmission agreement to enter into force. Therefore the readmission agreement is inevitable linked to Turkey receiving the safe country of origin status, which would have severe consequences for two groups of people: Turkish nationals who attempt to seek asylum in the EU and refugees from the broader MENA region who use Turkey as a transit country to reach the EU.

For the former group of Turkish citizens – including the Kurdish minority – it would be very difficult to seek asylum within the EU, since the safe country of origin status excludes the possibility of political persecution and massive rights violations. Yet, the fact that the Turkish government is currently in an official armed conflict with the Kurdish Worker’s Party PKK and that according to the EU commissions’ own statistics 23% of all asylum applications of Turkish nationals in 2014 were successful, show that Turkey is not able to fulfill the status of a safe country of origin.

Besides these dangers for Turkish nationals, the second group, consisting of refugees from the MENA region, like Syria or Iraq, who use Turkey as a transit country – third country nationals in the readmission agreement – would face two immediate consequence when the readmission agreement enters into force: quicker deportations and stricter border controls.

Regarding the latter, the Joint Declaration on Technical assistance which forms part of the readmission agreement as an Annex, states that: ‘attention will be paid {…} to institution and capacity building to enhance Turkey’s capacity to prevent irregular migrants from entering, staying and exiting its territory.’ And further: ‘this could be achieved through {…} border surveillance equipment and border police structures.’ Thus, what the readmission agreement further aims at is stronger cooperation in aspects of border management and border control. In this regard, the readmission agreement is another instrument of securitization and migration control, which the EU has chosen as its overall strategy to respond to the current crisis. This was publicly acknowledged by Merkel, whom the German newspaper ‘SPIEGEL’ quoted as saying: ‘Europe cannot protect its borders if we do not make an agreement with Turkey.’ While the agreement is not specifically about the exact kind of border control cooperation, it is safe to assume that it will constitute another hurdle for refugees attempting to reach European territory.

Regarding the second consequence, and as shown above, the readmission agreement would not deny refugees the right to seek asylum in the EU, but it would nevertheless allow for the removal to and readmission by Turkey of all those individuals who ‘no longer, fulfill the conditions in force for {…}, presence in, or residence on, the territory of the requesting {EU} Member State’. Thus, every person whose asylum application on convention grounds has been rejected could face deportation to Turkey. And even though unsuccessful asylum applicants receive deportation orders already now - without any readmission agreement in place – in most cases the conditions in the home country of an asylum applicant will not allow for his deportation, even if he did not receive asylum based on convention grounds. This would be changed by the deal between Ankara and Brussels; the EU can - without hesitation and worries that it breaches international law - deport asylum applicants who do not qualify for asylum on convention grounds to Turkey, a safe country of origin. However, high unemployment rates and limited access to social services are the reality for refugees in Turkey and the temporary legal status granted to them makes it hard for many to establish a future outside their home countries.

Furthermore, if the readmission agreement is seen in a broader context, concerns arise that it may impact the way a decision on asylum and deportation is reached. In light of recent proposals - made by German politicians of Merkel’s own coalition - to erect transit centers at Germany’s outer borders, where asylum applications would be decided within a few days and where all unsuccessful applicants could be deported immediately, one gets a vivid picture of what the readmission agreement might look like in practice. Hereby it is highly questionable if procedural safeguards, such as a right to appeal, would be guaranteed. Moreover, it is doubtful if an asylum application can accurately be decided upon, and whether all necessary background material can be taken into account if a decision is to be reached within a few days. This then is another danger of the planned deal between Brussels and Ankara, that it would allow for a system where asylum decisions are rushed, where peoples’ right to a fair assessment of their asylum claim is infringed upon and where applicants are more likely to end up on the unsuccessful side than is currently the case.


Photograph credit: Murad Sezer/Reuters

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