Brussels – ESI discusses 5th anniversary of EU-Turkey Statement

1 March 2021

ESI's Senior Analyst Alexandra Stiglmayer spoke about the EU-Turkey Statement from March 2016 at a conference in Brussels, making the case for a new Statement that would address the shortcomings of the 2016 agreement and build on its successes.

The conference “5th Year of the EU-Turkey Statement on Migration: Historical Perspective, Practical Experiences and Future Insights” was organised by the European Parliament's EU-Turkey Friendship Group and the Brussels office of the Turkish Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants.

Alexandra said the 2016 Statement had been successful in reducing the number of irregular crossings by sea from Turkey to Greece, but that it was never implemented as envisaged and de facto ceased to exist  last year. She said the last return of 13 migrants under the Statement took place on 5 March 2020, the EU had committed no new money under the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, and only some 1,600 vulnerable Syrian refugees have been resettled since March 2020; the latter, however, was not only a lack of willingness, but also a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, under the 2016 Statement the number of irregular sea crossings from Turkey to Greek islands has never been as low as now. Since mid-March 2020 until now, only some 2,600 people have reached Greek islands. This is the result of a dark practice, she said. Alexandra explained that in March 2020 Greece started applying a policy of systematic pushbacks in the Aegean. The Hellenic Coast Guard, or sometimes masked men, intercept refugee boats going from Turkey to Greece, destroy their engine and tow them back to Turkish waters where they are let to drift until the Turkish Coast Guard picks them up. Sometimes even worse happens: refugees and migrants who have reached a Greek islands are rounded up, put on life rafts without an engine, and towed to Turkish waters.

Alexandra said that between March and December 2020, some 9,000 refugees and migrants were pushed back in this way to Turkey. The Turkish Coastguard has documented every single case, with videos, data and testimonies, and independent NGOs such as Alarmphone and Mare Liberum confirm the number of 9,000 pushbacks. These pushbacks are inhumane, morally despicable and they blatantly violate EU and international law, most important the UN Refugee Convention.

The EU faces a choice, Alexandra said. Either it continues to tolerate these pushbacks, which shed a bad light on the rule of law in the EU, or it negotiates a new agreement with Turkey, an EU-Turkey Statement 2.0. The latter would keep irregular arrivals low in a legal and humane way.

She said the EU also has an interest of its own to support Turkey in taking care of the 4 million refugees in the country, of whom 3.6 million are Syrians. The 6 billion Euro in funding have been important. They have helped the most destitute refugees make ends meet through cash assistance; they have helped them send their children to school by paying a small financial contribution; they have helped make school education available for most of almost 1 million Syrian refugee children of school age; and they have provided all the refugees with access to health care.  Helping the refugees is not only a moral imperative, but also in the EU's interest because it enables the Syrians to make a living in Turkey.

Now, why would a new agreement be in Turkey's interest? Because of the financial support for refugees. Turkey's economy is not doing well, and this funding stream is important, Alexandra said. In addition, for both sides it would be a concrete start to improve their relations.

Alexandra said the new agreement should focus on migration and not overburden it with other issues. It should envisage the establishment of a monitoring mechanism in Turkey that would verify that returnees are treated in line with Turkish law and the European Convention on Human Rights. This could in turn increase the number of people that the Greek Asylum Service sends back to Turkey. EU member states should also commit to new funding for the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey at the same levels as before, and they should resettle more Syrian refugees from Turkey than the 28,000 that were resettled in five years. In addition, the conditions on the Greek islands must improve and asylum processing must accelerate.

Other speakers at the conference included Faruk Kaymakcı, Turkish Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Director for EU Affairs; Ryszard Czarnecki, MEP, chair of the European Parliament's EU-Turkey Friendship Group; Traian Băsescu, MEP and former President of Romania; İbrahim Vurgun Kavlak, General Coordinator at ASAM; from the European Commission: Youcef Hammache, Turkey Team Leader at DG ECHO, and Ruud Van-Enk, Turkey Team Leader at DG NEAR; and Murat Şen, Legal Counsellor from the Permanent Representation of Turkey to the EU.