Refugees neglected as EU and Turkey bicker over border strategy

By Jack Lawrie

The European Union is attempting to reach an agreement with the Republic of Turkey over the refugee crisis.

There are currently over 2.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, with more crossing the border each day.

Brussels wants Turkey to keep these refugees from crossing into the EU, and to take back and settle those who have already crossed over from the Turkish border. Currently settlement is done at Turkey’s expense, who have spent 8 billion euro on maintaining refugee camps and providing basic needs.

But while Turkey and Brussels have been at loggerheads over the action plan for the past 6 months, there are concerns being raised as to whether settling refugees in Turkey is an ethical solution.

A recent report released on Tuesday by the European Commissions criticised Turkey for shortcomings in human rights and press freedom shortcomings/abuses, inconsistent with European standards.

The report cites “significant backsliding in the past two years notably in the areas of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly”, such as a lack of enforcement of non-discrimination against ethnic and LGBTI minorities. Further issues include an escalation of violence in east and south-east Turkey since July, and a high level of intimidation and censorship of the press.

These findings reveal that the safety of refugees being settled in Turkey is not guaranteed. This puts the EU in a difficult position, as criticism of these abuses could hinder their negotiating prospects. However, the ongoing back and forth between Turkey and the EU is being hampered by long-standing tensions between the two, making it difficult to reach an agreement.

The European Commission outlined a ‘joint action plan’ to coordinate the efforts between Turkey and the EU on handling the crisis.

As part of this ‘action plan’, the EU offered additional funding to assist the Turkish government with settling the refugees. They also promised humanitarian aid and financial support for displaced refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, to prevent them from being pushed toward Turkey.

This plan was swiftly rejected by Turkish Foreign minister Feridun Sinirlioglu who said the financial aid “unacceptable”.

“We have spent $8 billion (on refugees) and our gross national product is around $800 billion. Their (The EU’s) GNP is $18 trillion,” Mr Sinirlioglu said in a press statement.

Following the landslide re-election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) on the 1st November, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has adopted a stronger bargaining position with Europe. In exchange for Turkey taking on Europe’s refugees, he demanded more financial aid and for the visa application process for Turkish citizens entering Europe to be made easier.

Talks between President Erdoğan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who in a rare display of submission visited Ankara to personally appeal the case to the President. This led to an offer of 3.4 billion euros in accordance with Turkey’s demands. In addition to that, Merkel offered to assist with Turkey’s longstanding EU accession ambitions.

Dr Özge Bilgili, Post-Doctorate Researcher on transnationalism at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and United Nations University said with Turkeys’ accession once again on the table, refugees being settled there can potentially benefit from a deal in the long run.

“If you think about the long-term consequences of such a deal, you will see that in the end, refugees would have access to all other European countries,” Dr Bilgili said.

Turkey’s accession to the EU has been a contentious issue of European international relations and enlargement policy since 1963.

However, Dr Bilgili was doubtful an agreement on the accession would succeed, as it would run against Brussels’ goal of settling refugees outside the EU.

While it cannot yet be determined whether the offer of accession will amount to anything, the fact that the EU would make such an offer for a country it has historically pushed back against is a possible sign of desperation. Allowing Turkey to become a member state suggests they are trying to appease them over the refugee issue, even if that may mean overlooking numerous flaws in their human rights policies.

Dr Bilgili says for the good of the refugees, the EU must confront Turkey over its human rights issues before reaching an agreement.

“These are not two things that are comparable; if Turkey needs to be criticised, it needs to be criticised.”

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