So, how is the EU-Turkey agreement beginning to perform three weeks after its official launch? The ‘First Report on the progress made in the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement’, published by the European Commission on 20 April 2016, paints a mixed picture.
Looking strictly at the numbers, irregular arrivals to Greece have been reduced by some 80% between the three weeks preceding the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement and the three subsequent weeks. Linked to this, Frontex now detects some 80-90% of the departures of migrant boats from the Turkish coasts. This is clearly a very encouraging interim outcome.
In terms of returns of irregular migrants under the EU-Turkey agreement, and not accounting for those falling under the bilateral readmission agreement between Greece and Turkey, 325 persons were sent back to Turkey since 4th April, 74% of whom were Pakistani and 12% Afghanis. Only 0.6% were actually Syrians.
Regarding human and logistical resources, to date 92 asylum officers, with a capacity to process some 200 cases per day (albeit with some limitations due to a persisting shortage of interpreters), have been deployed by EASO. Frontex has deployed 318 escort officers (out of an expressed need for 1,500 of them) and 21 return and readmission experts (out of a need for 50), in addition to 339 additional officers in Lesvos and Chios to support the readmission process. It has also secured the availability of means of transportation for the returns, including 24 buses, five ferries and one charter plane.
Despite a number of pending challenges, such as the need to strengthen Greece’s Asylum Service and increase its detention/closed reception capacity, as well as the need to expand the deployment of EASO and Frontex long-term experts and pay due attention to the situation of children and vulnerable groups in the hotspots, it would be largely undeserved not to salute the speed with which the Agreement was put in place and its interim results three weeks on.
In particular, the implementation of the agreement has clearly entailed a number of legal changes, and therefore a number of legal challenges in view of the extremely short lapse of time between the signing of the Agreement and its effective launch. These have included, on the Greek side, establishing the concepts of safe third country and safe first country of asylum, as well as ensuring fast-track procedures for the examination of asylum applications, including appeal procedures; and on the Turkish side, establishing that Syrian nationals returning under the new arrangements are entitled to temporary protection.
Through its Communication on ‘Next operational steps in EU-Turkey cooperation in the field of migration’ of 16 March 20164, the European Commission was also able to respond promptly to mounting criticism from UN agencies and NGOs about the conformity of the Agreement with international and EU law. This is not to say, however, that such criticism has been fully dissipated yet.
Finally, adequate coordination appears to have been secured between the Commission and the Greek authorities, EASO, Frontex, Europol, the Council Presidency, France, the United Kingdom and Germany to implement and oversee various aspects of the EU-Turkey agreement – again a challenge in itself in view of the short time frame.
Serious doubts, however, remain about the medium to long-term sustainability of the agreement. A critical one relates to the ability, or at least the willingness of the EU member states to resettle Syrian refugees under the one-to-one principle enshrined in the EU-Turkey Agreement. This is for two reasons. First because the EU appears to have established a ceiling on the number of refugees it will agree to resettle – even if, to be exact, the European Commission has indicated that this would be the model it would follow ‘in the first instance’. In practice, this ceiling only builds on those that had already been established under the EU Resettlement Scheme of 2015, which foresaw the resettlement of up to 22,504 refugees over two years, and the ceiling of 160,000 established under the EU Relocation scheme. On this basis, and considering the very poor level of pledges made under both of these schemes to date, the maximum number of refugees that could be resettled under the EU-Turkey agreement would only amount to 70,800. To date, a total of 103 migrants have been resettled from Turkey to Germany, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden.
The second reason relates to the voluntary nature of the resettlement agreement at member state level. To date, only 15% of the EU Resettlement Scheme and less than 1% of the EU Relocation Plan have been fulfilled. Therefore, on which basis could it be assumed that member states would be more prone to resettle refugees under the EU-Turkey agreement than they have been under the two previous schemes? And assuming they are, on which basis could it be expected that the current ceiling of 70,800 would not fall short of the actual numbers that would need to be resettled under the one-to-one principle, particularly in view of the increasingly volatile political relations between the EU and Turkey, which could put at risk Turkey’s willingness to police its maritime borders with Greece to maximum effect in the future?
Another closely interrelated consideration relates to the issue of predictability. According to the European Commission, ‘Member States need to plan their resettlement pledges, taking into account the need to give minimum predictability to UNHCR and individual candidates for resettlement, and substantially shorten the normal resettlement procedures (from 12 months in normal cases to just a few weeks)’. Again, in view of recent history, how could the notion of predictability be factored in the member states’ policy thinking which, to date, has been so fundamentally adverse to the very principle of resettlement and relocation?
Notwithstanding the above challenges and reservations, there is little doubt that the EU-Turkey is making a promising start and is already contributing to a reduction in the migratory pressure supported by Greece. The question of course remains the extent to which these initial positive outcomes are also contributing to diverting the source of illegal migration flows to new transit countries. While the smuggler’s modus operandi appears to have been seriously affected on the Turkey-Greece maritime route, fears are mounting about new illegal migration itineraries on the Greek-Albanian land border, the Italian-Greek and Albanian sea routes, the land border between Turkey and Bulgaria/Greece, the Greek-Bulgarian land border and of course the Central Mediterranean route. Due to the lack of any viable government and stable institutions, Libya, in particular, is now widely seen as the next illegal migration time-bomb, with potentially half-a-million migrants in the process of taking the dangerous maritime route to Italy and Malta. The 500 migrants feared dead after an overcrowded boat sank off the coast of Libya last week are unfortunately a bitter omen of this.
* Solon Ardittis is Director of Eurasylum, a European research and consulting organisation specialising in migration and asylum policy on behalf of national public authorities and EU institutions. He is also co-editor of “Migration Policy Practice”, a bimonthly journal published jointly with the International Organization for Migration (IOM).