In recent days German media reported on a dispute between Turkey and EU countries concerning the resettlement of Syrian refugees. Spiegel Online, ARD and others explained that Turkey proposed to the EU mainly “vulnerable cases” for resettlement, while hindering academics or Syrians with qualifications from leaving. The evidence is anecdotal, but it made headlines (It was also on German television last night.) In fact the story appears as a smokescreen for a real problem. And the crucial information missing in most of these reports is the number of people resettled from Turkey since the EU-Turkey agreement entered into force two months ago: 177.
The EU-Turkey agreement from March 2016 has a central promise: “In order to break the business model of the smugglers and to offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk, the EU and Turkey today decided to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU.” And yet, it is impossible to “offer an alternative” by resettling less than 100 refugees a month.
A little history is useful. On 4 December sherpas of a Coalition of Willing EU member states met in Brussels to discuss a proposal by the European Commission which asked how a resettlement scheme might be “effectively designed”. It suggested that its aim should be:
“expedited resettlement scheme or humanitarian admission that does not take longer than 3-6 months from the submission of the resettlement proposal from UNHCR to the Member state authorities to the physical transfer of the person concerned.”
This made fast resettlement impossible. At the time ESI proposed to set up a system starting from the assumption that the EU was in fact interested in resettling significant numbers of people, since this was key to making the EU-Turkey agreement work:
“The challenge is to find a quick way to resettle Syrian refugees from Turkey to EU MS. The quickest way is to leave out all unnecessary intermediaries.”
We pointed to existing programs for lessons:
“When Germany resettled 20,000 Syrian refugees from countries neighbouring Syria as well as Egypt between 2013 and this year under its Humanitarian Resettlement Programme for Syrian refugees (HAP – Humanitäres Aufnahmeprogramm), it chose for the first contingent of 5,000 refugees the following criteria: “Firstly particularly vulnerable refugees, secondly refugees with a link to Germany, and thirdly refugees with special qualifications that could be useful for Syria’s reconstruction.”“
That German programme was less ambitious than what is needed now in terms of numbers, but the criteria are interesting: and with any larger numbers resettled there should be no conflict between these criteria. An EU protocol on how to implement the 1:1 scheme from 27 April 2016 gave the following selection criteria:
“women and girls at risk; survivors of violence and/or torture; refugees with legal and/or physical protection needs; refugees with medical needs or disabilities; children and adolescents at risk; and/or Members of the nuclear family of a person legally resident in a Participating State”
In this light, where is the scandal that Spiegel Online suggests? Is the problem not rather that each refugee is inspected and bargained over, like cattle on a cattle market, which makes substantial resettlement impossible? The Commission complained in its most recent report that some EU member states pick whom they want to take from Greece, as in the case of unaccompanied minors (whom they do not want):
“In line with the Council Decisions on relocation, Member States should prioritise the relocation of unaccompanied minors arriving in the EU. Since 12 April, no unaccompanied minor has been relocated.”
Unfortunately, relocation has been a failure of process: instead of 66,000 people relocated from Greece, as foreseen, the total so far stands at 909, in a process that started in July 2015. Now resettlement risks becoming a failure of process too.
ESI recommended a daily target of 900 resettlements some months ago. For this, processes would have to be streamlined. Do refugees pose security threats? Are they vulnerable, or families with children? Do they have relatives in the EU? Whether they have specific qualifications should not even be a consideration.
For this reason the media reporting diverts attention from the real problem: the central promise of the EU-Turkey deal – “creating legal routes to the EU for refugees” – is not being kept. 177 resettlements is a shockingly low number for two months. The key policy question should be when/if the EU will announce that it is preparing to act in accordance with provision four of the agreement. This stated:
“Once irregular crossings between Turkey and the EU are ending or at least have been substantially and sustainably reduced, a Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme will be activated. EU Member States will contribute on a voluntary basis to this scheme.”
The numbers crossing have fallen dramatically and have remained low. The EU and Turkey should therefore declare the 1:1 exchange phase to be over. And the EU should radically review and change its guidelines and practices for both resettlement and relocation.
An internal document adopted in April 2016, setting out the “Implementation of the EU-Turkey 1:1 scheme” refered to a “Fast-track Standard Operating Procedures”, which is everything but fast. Its design precludes the resettlement of tens of thousands of people within the foreseeable future. It is failure by design.
This puts reports on the “haggling over Syrian academics” in context. The real news is not that the EU and Turkey do not agree on who should be resettled, but that a resettlement process has been designed which makes serious resettlement almost impossible and which – with 177 people resettled in more than two months – has not actually begun yet.