Ashby Henningsen, UMBC:
Over the past several months, the refugee crisis stemming from the Middle East has reached unprecedented proportions. Europe and Turkey have been among those areas most affected by the overwhelming numbers of displaced persons, causing their leaders and citizens alike to struggle in determining the best response. However, this past week, European and Turkish leaders announced an agreement that would at least help alleviate the outpouring of refugees from the Middle East to Europe and Turkey. Based on a so-called “one-for-one” principle, whereby the E.U. would re-settle one refugee currently in Turkey for each refugee that Turkey would re-admit from southern Europe, the deal has been heralded by European and Turkish officials as a potential resolution to the unregulated pouring of refugees into both areas. Yet closer examination reveals both structural problems with the deal itself and troubling implications for pursuing such a humanitarian initiative with Turkey, a country whose own human rights conditions have rightfully been called into question.
On paper, the refugee deal could simultaneously help alleviate Europe’s mounting migration and provide a much-needed safe haven for refugees. By reversing the flow of unregulated refugee smuggling from Greece to Turkey, the “one-for-one” deal could make the arrival of refugees more orderly and manageable while still allowing European leaders to meet humanitarian goals. So far, officials have appeared eager to advance this sort of thinking. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the deal “‘a breakthrough’ that would deter refugees from making the perilous sea crossing to Greece,” while European Union leader Donald Tusk promoted the deal as a way to end “‘irregular migration to Europe’” . Turkey stands to benefit as well. The deal includes material incentives, such as an accelerated visa-application process for Turkish citizens and a re-opening of the discussion for Turkey’s entry into the E.U. The arrangement could potentially open Turkey to greater economic integration with the European mainland and open new development opportunities for its citizens.
However, upon closer inspection the agreement begins to exhibit several structural flaws and concerning moral implications. The effectiveness of the deal’s strategy for handling refugees has already become a source of contention. Turkey may not be logistically prepared to handle the return of refugees from Greece for several months. There is also the potentially flawed logic of the “one-for-one” concept. As Patrick Kingsley of the Guardian has stated: “If the EU will accept only as many refugees who reach Greece and are then returned to Turkey, then both the refugees and the Turks have even more incentive to make sure as many migrants reach Greece in the first place” . From such a standpoint, the deal may actually place even greater strain upon European states and Turkey, who are struggling to accommodate and care for their bulging refugee populations as it is.
Observers have also called into question the immediate legality and moral considerations of the E.U.-Turkey refugee agreement. Filippo Grandi, the U.N.
High Commissioner for Refugees, stated that the deal could come into conflict with international law for not taking into account the need for specific safeguard measures for refugees . Even putting aside international legal concerns, some argue that the deal does little to actually alleviate the refugees’ lack of stable protection and shelter. Andrew Gardner, a Turkey-based researcher for Amnesty International, accuses E.U. leaders of using the deal as a means to continue deflecting responsibility for the broader refugee crisis . There is also the ethical implication of placing geopolitical conditions upon the protection of and provisioning of civilians fleeing systemic conflict and instability.
However, these shorter-term legal and moral concerns might not even be the refugee agreement’s biggest flaws. Rather, the biggest question might be whether Turkey is even a legitimate humanitarian partner given its own complicated human rights record. Under the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has undergone a disturbing shift away from democracy and towards authoritarianism. This trend has manifested itself in the reduction of civil liberties and the lack of protection for ethnic minorities. Over the past several years, Erdogan has cracked down on the rights of public expression and assembly among vocal dissenters. Harsh reactions to public demonstrations, the imprisonment of journalists , and the expansion of police powers  have led to a disturbing trend within Turkish political culture. However, perhaps the most blatant act of repression against free speech transpired this past week, with the government seizure of the country’s two largest independent news organizations. The takeover of the newspaper Zaman  and the Cihan news agency  have incited backlash from opposition figures and international observers, who have decried the moves as blatant violations of fundamental democratic values.
Just as troubling for Turkey’s human rights status is its repressive policies towards its minority Kurdish population. Many of the country’s Kurds have expressed frustration at what they view as alienation from mainstream Turkish society. The violent actions of militant Kurdish opposition movements such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have provoked equally violent responses from Ankara. In addition to complicating an already-unstable region , the conflict against groups like the PKK has also resulted in broad government suppression of Turkey’s Kurdish communities overall. Some have even accused Erdogan of going so far as to allow ISIS to execute attacks against Kurds .
Given the magnitude and complexity of the migration crisis, one can understand the impetus to reach a comprehensive strategy. Even so, the agreement recently reached between European and Turkish leaders raises concern over both short-term and long-term repercussions. The details of the deal involve legal, logistical, and moral dilemmas that officials on both ends of the arrangement have appeared quick to gloss over. Furthermore, the deteriorating human rights situation within Turkey itself calls into question what sort of role it should have in addressing the humanitarian crisis and how eager Europe should be to seek its partnership therein. Erdogan’s government should not be given a pass to obscure its own human rights abuses. For that matter, the need for Turkey’s help with the migration crisis does not excuse European officials from downplaying the gravity of their new partner’s human rights situation. Yet Erdogan’s European counterparts appear more than willing to turn a blind eye in favor of stemming the flow of refugees to their own countries . One cannot help but worry how low a priority these concerns will become as the region’s leaders scramble for short-term relief.