The fair isle of Lesbos, in the Northern Aegean Sea, used to be the seat of a very peculiar institution of Ancient Greece: the thìasos, some sort of prestigious sorority for wealthy teenage girls who wished to practice the cult of Aphrodite. The island gave birth to the possibly most well-known Greek poetess, Sappho, who inspired generations of poets up to the present day. It also happens to be the reason why homosexual women are called “lesbians”, but that’s another story. In the last few years, however, the worldwide image of the island changed quite radically as it became known more as a haven for Middle Eastern refugees than as a place of culture: news reports showing Lesbos’ sandy shores swarming with immigrants in miserable conditions had become pretty much a daily routine, and the EU’s phlegmatic responses proved of little use in countering the problem of a country already burdened by an unbearable economic pressure and now facing an unexpected stream of more or less legal immigration. Recently, much to the relief of historians and Greek border patrol agents and coastal guards alike, things have started to change, for the engines of European politics have apparently finally started rotating: their first move was a deal, signed in agreement with Turkey on the 18th of March, aimed at preventing undetected infiltrations among the refugees and asylum seekers that enter EU territory every day. As noble a goal as that may seem, the means by which the European Union plans to achieve it might be considered at the very least debatable. But let’s discuss the deal in detail.
Under the plan, Greece agreed to arrange a bureaucratic structure capable of processing the asylum requests coming from new migrants. After March 20th, every asylum seeker processed on Greek soil is to be returned to Turkey in exchange for an (approved) refugee from a Turkish refugee camp. As you have probably noticed, at its heart the deal is about making Turkey do the paperwork to discern the “good guys” from the “bad guys” for the rest of Europe. So what’s in it for them?
You might remember that Turkey’s quest for EU membership has been more or less frozen since its start in 1995. Well, part of our side of the bargain consists in accelerating the liberalization of visas for Turkish nationals, as well as reprocessing Turkey’s application for EU membership. In addition, EU member states will finance the resettlement operations for refugees residing in Turkey for an amount between 3 and 6 billion euros (depending on who you ask).
It is not the first time that the EU has decided to outsource the problem of screening immigrants and refugees in order to protect European territory; as a matter of fact, such an agreement has already existed with Morocco since 2013 and used to exist with Colonel Gaddafi, who agreed to strengthen border controls for the streams of immigrants flowing through Libya towards the EU in exchange for support for Libyan nationals working in the European Union. The ethical implications of both deals are very similar.
Although trading uncertain asylum applicants for already-approved and certified ones might be a more convenient activity than any European politician would be willing to admit in public, we should always keep in mind what sending the others back means. What will be of the pending applicants once they get deported to Turkey?
Turkey is a country at war, any way we look at it. While terrorist attacks are spreading all over the country – the most recent one unfolding in Ankara, the capital, on the 13th of March – the South-East is outright ravaged by the rebellion of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), that has occupied several cities, including Diyarbakir, and the consequential governmental effort to reconquer the region by means of land and air raids. The South-East also happens to be where the Syrian and Iraqi borders are located and where the vast majority of the refugee camps have been built. This means that Syrian and Iraqi refugees – which constitute the vast majority of the concerned population – basically escape one war zone, only to enter another. Nevertheless, Turkey alone hosts more refugees than any other country. According to a report released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of December 2015 Turkey welcomed a population of around 1.9m refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons; of these, 1.5 million are Syrians, and the overall number is expected to grow in 2016. Roughly 2m people are in danger of being caught in the cross-fire of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict every day. Furthermore, there have been claims from human rights associations, such as Amnesty International, that Turkish border patrol agents have been shooting refugees on their way into Turkish territory. Does this mean that the Turkish government is evil? Wrong question. Does this mean Turkey is probably not the safest place to ship thousands of refugees to every day? Better question.
Despite any such arguments, the European Union deemed Turkey a “safe harbor” for refugees, which implies that the deal will be enforced as planned, starting today. There are, however, still several unknowns at play. For example, it is not clear whether Greece possesses the actual bureaucratic and financial ability to organize mass shippings of refugees back to Turkey and file their asylum applications. Also, there is no guarantee that Europe will uphold its side of the bargain; public opinion vehemently opposes the prospect of Turkey entering the European Union, mainly due to the authoritarian turn of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, which is allegedly guilty of suppressing freedom of speech, press and association in the country. So what is the point of it all?
Well, it is much like a gamble. In the first place, it might actually serve its purpose of making the integration process of the already approved asylum seekers from Turkey quick and painless for a while (until traffickers and smugglers find another route, that is). This would likely help the image of the European democrats and moderates, which took a dive after the disasters of Cologne and the like. On the other hand, it would help Erdogan’s propaganda by shielding his questionable policies behind the aegis of EU politics, if the EU were to welcome Turkey’s application for membership. It is then safe to conclude this deal is borne more out of desperation from both sides than actual commitment to solve the refugee crisis. Although their name appears in the text of the agreement, their interests are not exactly at the top of the list.