Syrian school children at the Temporary Education Center in Osmaniye, southern Turkey. Photo: European Commission

EU-Turkey Statement 2.0

How the EU and Turkey must cooperate in their mutual interest

The EU-Turkey Statement from March 2016 drastically reduced the numbers of migrants crossing the Aegean and thereby also the numbers of people drowning. Then it broke down in March 2020. What is needed now is a revised Statement 2.0 that addresses the shortcomings and builds on the successes of the first Statement. The new agreement should ensure continued EU support for Syrian refugees in Turkey, a greater focus on IDPs in Syria, continued support for asylum seekers and refugees in Greece and decent reception conditions on the Greek islands. This will require quick asylum procedures that meet European standards, more returns to Turkey and a credible monitoring-mechanism in Turkey. EU member states should also make good on their promise to resettle Syrian refugees directly from Turkey.

ESI Proposal for a Revised EU-Turkey Statement 2.0 (16 March 2021)

Türkçe için: Gözden Geçirilmiş AB-Türkiye Mutabakatı 2.0 Teklifi

In the 12 months before the EU-Turkey Statement on 18 March 2016, 1 million refugees and migrants reached on rickety boats one of Greece’s islands near Turkey. More than 1,100 lost their lives on this journey. In the 12 months after, 26,000 arrived on Greek islands and 81 died. The agreement, which ESI had conceived in 2015, had a spectacular impact on irregular migration in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The 2016 EU-Turkey Statement envisaged that most asylum seekers would be sent back to Turkey after an individual examination of their case in Greece if Turkey was found to be safe for them. They would also be returned if they were found not to qualify for protection at all, or if they did not ask for asylum. In return, the EU would support refugees in Turkey with 6 billion Euro in funding. The Statement also stipulated that once numbers of arrivals went down, EU member states would resettle on a voluntary basis up to 72,000 Syrian refugees directly from Turkey to EU member states, sparing them the risky sea crossing and a perilous trek through the Balkans.

From the outset the EU-Turkey Statement suffered from implementation problems, which ESI documented already in 2016. The Greek asylum service was not able to process asylum claims swiftly; this took many months or even years. As a result, the reception facilities on the Greek islands overcrowded already in 2016 and conditions became appalling, with hardly anything done to improve them and no escape for the residents until a final decision on their case. On 2 March 2020, the number of refugees and migrants on the islands reached 42,800, the highest number ever, while the reception centres had only 6,200 places.

The Greek authorities were also reluctant to send people back to Turkey. Out of almost 150,000 that arrived until the end of February 2020, only 2,024 people were returned to Turkey.

In 2019, the initial effects of the agreement faded away. The number of new arrivals on the islands rose to 60,000, almost double what it was the year before. The EU did not promise new funding for the refugees in Turkey even though the entire 6 billion Euro had been committed by the end of 2019. This money has been put to good use: as of March 2021, it provides 1.8 million refugees with monthly cash payments, helps refugee families financially to send their kids to school, ensures that there are school facilities and teachers for the refugee children, and it offers health care to all the 4 million refugees in Turkey.

Resettlement had also fallen short of expectations. Until March 2021, 28,000 Syrian refugees had been resettled, with only 1,700 resettlements having taken place in the past 12 months due to Covid-19 and the difficulties with the agreement.

At the end of February 2020 then, an irritated Turkey declared its borders to the EU open. This led to a violent standoff at the Turkish-Greek land border between refugees and migrants demanding entry and Greek forces pushing back. On 5 March 2020, the last returns to Turkey under the Statement, of 13 people, took place.

Since then, Greece has used a different method to reduce irregular migration: push backs. The Hellenic Coastguard pushes refugee boats back into Turkish waters where they are eventually picked up by the Turkish Coastguard. According to credible evidence by the Turkish Coastguard and independent NGOs, 9,000 people were pushed back between March and December 2020; and 1,100 in 2021 until mid-March. Pushbacks are effective: only 2,900 people reached Greek islands between mid-March 2020 and mid-March 2021. But they are also illegal, forbidden under EU and international law.

While the 2016 EU-Turkey Statement was in place, ESI made numerous proposals how its implementation could be improved (see publications and newsletters below). Since March 2020, we have called for its renewal, an “EU-Turley Statement 2.0”, which would address the problems encountered in the past.

A renewed commitment reached between the EU and Turkey could ensure for the next decade humane control of irregular migration in the Aegean in line with the UN Refugee Convention. It would chart a way towards a sustainable asylum and border policy for the whole Mediterranean in 2021, in the interest of both Mediterranean EU member states and countries of destination such as Germany and France.