A girl tries to protect herself from the rain at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants next to the Moria camp during a rainfall, on the island of Lesbos. Photo: REUTERS / Giorgos Moutafis - stock.adobe.com

Evacuate the islands - EU-Turkey 2.0

How the EU and Turkey must cooperate in their mutual interest

The EU-Turkey statement has drastically brought down numbers of people trying to cross the Aegean and thereby also numbers of people drowning. But its key provisions are not implemented. What is needed are decent reception conditions on the Greek islands, quick procedures meeting European standards, more returns to Turkey and a related monitoring-mechanism. EU member states should also make good on the promise to resettle considerable numbers of refugees directly from Turkey on a voluntary basis.

Der Spiegel: Europäische Union: Fünf Vorschläge für eine bessere Migrationspolitik ("European Union: Five proposals for a better migration policy") (29 January 2021)

​​​​​​​ESI newsletter: A Mitsotakis Plan – who needs to act? (3 April 2020)

Der Spiegel: Kampf gegen Corona: Evakuiert die griechischen Inseln - jetzt!, op-ed by John Dalhuisen and Gerald Knaus, also available in English: The fight against Corona: Evacuate the Greek Islands – Now! (26 March 2020)

The EU-Turkey statement envisaged that most asylum seekers arriving on Greek islands would – after the Greek authorities had examined their cases – be sent back to Turkey if they do not need protection in the EU. It also envisaged that once numbers of arrivals went down, EU member states would resettle on a voluntary basis considerable numbers of refugees directly from Turkey to EU member states, sparing them a risky sea crossing and a periolous treck through the Balkans.

All this is not working. 144,000 people arrived on the Greek islands between March 2016, when the statement went into force, and the December 2019. Only 2,001 of them were returned to Turkey under the EU-Turkey statement. The likelihood of being sent back to Turkey has been a mere 1.4 percent. For the three largest groups arriving – Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis – it has been even smaller.

By now the main factor deterring people from getting into boats is not the likelyhood to be returned to Turkey, but the dismal conditions on the Greek islands. UNHCR, NGOs and other visitors repeatedly criticise the conditions in the camps. Problems range from overcrowding, lack of security, inadequate access to medical care and psycho-social support to dismal sanitary conditions. Oxfam called the people on the islands "vulnerable and abandoned" by those who are responsible for protecting them. With arrivals on the islands increasing to more than 40,000 in the five last months of 2019, the situation is further deteriorating.

This shameful situation is not for a lack of funds. The European Commission has allocated more than € 2 billion of support to Greece to handle the challenges related to migrants and asylum seekers.

Also the promised resettlements from Turkey have not gone far. When the numbers of daily arrivals on the Greek islands were still in the thousands, European politicians floated six-digit numbers to be resettled every year. Once the numbers went down, the promise was largely forgotten. 24,492 Syrian refugees were resettled from Turkey to EU member states from 4 April 2016 to 16 September 2019.

The situation on the Greek islands is fragile. Due to their small size reception capacities are limited. Already now the centres are dramatically overcrowded. An increase to a few hundred arrivals per day would bring them to collapse within weeks, forcing Greek authorities to bring large numbers of people quickly to the main land which would likely trigger even higher numbers of arrivals. More and more people would try to make their way though the Balkans towards central Europe. Pictures of human suffering, police brutality, and marching migrants would make it back on European TV screens. A sense of loss of control would again spread. There is no plan for such a situation which, given rising numbers of arrivals, appears ever more likely.

For Greece and the EU as a whole it is crucial that it will not come to this. For this the Greek authorities, supported by other EU member states, would need to establish decent camp conditions and a system delivering 2nd instance decisions within two months (how this is possible is shown by the Netherlands). Those with a negative decision would need to be sent back to Turkey. To assure that they are treated according to international standards a joint monitoring mechanism with Turkey should be established. With more than 87,000 asylum applications pending by the end of 2019, Greece will not be able to cope with this challenge if left alone. It urgently needs support of experienced asylum authorities of other EU member states for planning and implementation.

These measures would stablise the situation and again reduce the numbers of those crossing. In turn, EU member states should make good on their promise to resettle refugees directly from Turkey on a voluntary basis. The 24,000 that have been resettled so far show that this can be done. But far more need to be resettled. Interested EU member states can do this gradually. A target of 50,000 for the coming 12 months would be a good start.