segunda-feira, 17 de outubro de 2016
Europe’s refugee time bomb
Europe’s refugee time bomb
EU-Turkey deal ‘falls dramatically short,’ says one of the architects of the plan.
By MATTHEW KARNITSCHNIG AND JANOSCH DELCKER 10/18/16, 5:30 AM CET
BERLIN — Europe’s leaders portray the refugee pact they struck with Turkey last spring as a diplomatic silver bullet that will stem the flow of refugees to the Continent and ensure their humane treatment under Ankara’s care.
In fact, the deal, which Chancellor Angela Merkel personally negotiated, is starting to look more like a ticking time bomb.
A lack of political will in both Europe and Turkey to implement the pact’s key provisions has proved to be its Achilles’ heel. And if leaders don’t change course soon, the consequences will be felt from Ankara to Berlin, critics warn.
“A failure of the deal would have serious consequences for Greece and would be a problem for the Western Balkans,” said Gerald Knaus, director of the European Stability Initiative think tank and a primary architect of the refugee strategy. “But it would also be a problem for Merkel, the Dutch and others who face election campaigns next year.”
Knaus published a scathing report on the EU’s implementation of the plan last week, concluding “the current effort falls dramatically short.” If Europe doesn’t act, the Aegean islands could become a “European Nauru,” he warns, a reference the poverty-stricken Pacific island where Australia deposits migrants.
Under the Turkey deal, the pace at which Greece handles asylum cases was supposed to accelerate. Instead, it has slowed.
So far, European officials refuse to even acknowledge that there’s much of a problem. They point to Turkey’s efforts to patrol its borders, which have led to a dramatic drop in the number of new arrivals in Greece, from nearly 2,000 migrants per day in January to about 130 per day so far this month. The Commission announced this week that it had allocated billions to help refugees in Turkey, a crucial part of the plan.
“The EU-Turkey [pact] has led to concrete positive results,” European Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos said recently. “The success of our common approach over the last months is essential for the success of everything else.”
Yet the positive news belies serious cracks in the deal that its architects warn could trigger its collapse. Instead of ensuring the seamless transfer of migrants arriving in Greece back to Turkey — a key aspect of the plan — the deal has resulted in the backup of thousands of refugees on the Greek islands, where most live in overcrowded camps, often in squalid conditions.
And while the number of new arrivals has fallen compared to the beginning of the year, the monthly average has nearly tripled since May.
The problems in Greece are manifold. To begin, Greece lacks the institutional framework to deal with the influx. Under the Turkey deal, the pace at which Greece handles asylum cases was supposed to accelerate. Instead, it has slowed. Before the deal, the Greek appeals panel that deals with asylum cases handled an average of 80 cases per month. In September, it dealt with just 35 such cases, despite a growing backlog.
The problem, migration experts say, is that Greece is simply not equipped to deal with the mountain of cases it faces. Europe pledged to help but has sent only about 40 asylum experts to assist so far.
There are currently more than 14,000 migrants and asylum seekers on Greece’s Aegean islands and tens of thousands more on the mainland.
Under the terms of the EU-Turkey pact, Greece has the right to send back Syrians and other migrants who arrive from Turkey, once they’ve been registered and given an asylum hearing if they seek one.
For every Syrian refugee it takes back, Ankara has the right to send a Syrian refugee already in Turkey to Europe. Europe hoped that forcing refugees back to Turkey would dissuade them from crossing the Aegean, while also disrupting the human-smuggling trade.
So far, Greece has only sent back about 600 of the more than 14,000 migrants who arrived in the first six months of the deal. Most, if not all of the returnees, went voluntarily. That’s hardly the kind of deterrent, asylum experts say is necessary to keep refugees from making the trek to Europe.
“We’ve bought ourselves six months time and the numbers have fallen. But what really keeps people from coming is not fear of risking their lives, but a sense that it’s hopeless to come,” Knaus said. “That’s when the number of arrivals drops dramatically.”
The main difficulty in implementing this aspect of the plan has been that Greek asylum officials have refused to send the refugees back to Turkey. Under international agreements, refugees can only be sent to countries deemed safe. Though the Greek parliament has designated Turkey a “safe third country,” the asylum officials conducting the hearings typically take a different view, one that is more consistent with the appraisal of human rights advocates. Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch regularly report on abuses in Turkey of minorities and the political opposition, factors that many argue make the country unsuitable for refugees.
The situation on the islands is becoming increasingly dire as asylum seekers are forced to wait months just to register.
In the European Commission’s September report on the state of the agreement, it reported that of the thousands of refugees who had arrived on the Greek islands since the agreement took effect, Greek officials had so far only agreed that six Syrian refugees could be returned to Turkey after reviewing their asylum petitions.
The situation on the islands, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly dire as asylum seekers are forced to wait months just to register. On Lesvos, the island with the largest number of migrants, a fire recently destroyed much of the Moria camp after angry migrants set it on fire.
To defuse the tension, Greek officials may be forced to relocate many of the migrants to the mainland. But that’s just what Germany and other northern countries don’t want. The point of keeping the migrants on the islands and returning them to Turkey quickly was to send a signal to other potential asylum seekers not to come. The longer migrants stay, the less likely it is they will ever return home. Europe currently only returns about 30 percent of the migrants who enter the EU illegally, according to Commission statistics.
Another concern is that once refugees reach the mainland they will head north, testing borders along the so-called Balkan route. Other EU countries pledged to take many of Greece’s roughly 50,000 refugees, but so far only about 4,500 have been relocated.
Though the borders along the Balkan route have been sealed, as countries from Macedonia to Slovenia erected stronger border controls, it’s far from clear they would withstand another major influx.
Serbia, for example, already faces a growing crisis on its border with Hungary, where thousands of refugees trying to reach northern Europe have set up makeshift camps.
Asylum experts say the deal can’t be fully implemented until Turkey improves its human rights record, a tall order. Knaus says Europe should engage Ankara more seriously and use the promise of visa liberalization for Turks as leverage to win concessions.
While the EU promised Turkey the visa waiver as part of the original agreement — once Ankara fulfills the conditions — it remains controversial in many countries. In Germany and Austria, for example, populist parties warn that the visa waiver could spark an exodus of Kurds and other Turks facing persecution at home. Mainstream politicians worry about the optics of cutting a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan just as he has become more authoritarian.
“Europeans often debate this subject on an emotional level without considering what the next step will be,” Knaus said. ” [European Parliament President] Martin Schulz can say there won’t be visa liberalization for Turks, but we still need Turkey to keep the crisis from breaking out again in the Aegean.”
Another question is whether Turkey will play along. Erdoğan is keen to keep the deal alive, in part to maintain good relations with Europe, which have been strained of late.
For now, Europe’s attention appears to be focused on Brexit and other issues. The strains on the Turkey deal have largely gone unnoticed, as have the ramifications of its collapse.
Back in March, when the deal was agreed, leaders were desperate to show tangible progress in stemming the flow of refugees by securing a deal. Making it work over the long term has been less of a priority, analysts say.
“As soon as the message worked, the interest in its actual implementation dropped significantly,” said Elizabeth Collett, director of Brussels-based think tank Migration Policy Institute Europe. “Everyone who understands how these things work knows that it would have taken a lot of time to put into practice.”
Matthew Karnitschnig and Janosch Delcker