A policy proposal that is good for Greece, the EU and refugees
Presented in The Hague
11 February 2016
Plodding and success
The inventor of management studies, Peter Drucker, noted once that, while high intelligence and imagination are far from rare in executive jobs, “high effectiveness” is often conspicuously absent. Many brilliant minds are strikingly ineffectual.
“While others rush around in the frenzy and busyness which very bright people so often confuse with ‘creativity’, the plodder puts one foot in front of the other and gets there first like the tortoise in the old fable.”
The European Union and its institutions are famous plodders. They have excelled at stitching a continent together by putting one foot in front of the other. Take Schengen: invented by a small “coalition of the willing” in 1985, it took until 1995 before France trusted its Benelux neighbours enough to implement the Schengen rules it had itself crafted. Soon Schengen turned out to be so popular and effective that it attracted many other countries to join, even non- EU members like Switzerland and Norway. It became part of EU rules, one of the most popular European projects, transforming lives for citizens and businesses. It has often been challenged, but never replaced, based on many compromises and interests slowly reconciled in endless meetings.
The plodding progress of the European Union institutions in Brussels can, given enough time, change the geopolitics of a whole continent. Yet things often look different when it comes to an unexpected crisis.
Frenzy and failure
In recent months, the European Commission and the European Council have been gripped by frenzy, even panic, as they sought to devise credible policies to deal with the sudden inflow of a million people into the Schengen area. One busy summit and extraordinary meeting followed another. As EU staff rushed through the corridors, many a speech and policy idea was presented that – upon a little reflection – should never have been tabled. But once announced, even obviously unworkable schemes had to be explored, tested and defended, with frantic attempts to stave off their eventual, inevitable failure.
This has certainly been the case for one of the supposed flagship projects in the recent crisis: the idea to set up an internal “relocation mechanism” – a scheme whereby those who arrive to claim asylum in Greece or Italy are relocated to other EU member states according to a key designed by the European Commission, with every country showing “European solidarity” by accepting a number of immigrants and asylum seekers.
This scheme has turned into a humiliating experience for the EU. It was adopted in September in a rare majority decision, outvoting countries who claimed that the scheme was both unworkable and wrong on principle. This led to serious tensions among EU members.
A few months on, even the most Europhile of observers have to admit that the doubters had a point: designed to relocate 160,000 people in two years, it has so far led to the relocation of no more than 500 people. It has failed altogether where it mattered most – in both Italy and Greece. These are embarrassing, even laughable numbers, and they make the EU look strikingly ineffective. Meanwhile the Commission has tried to shame member states into offering more places, while Greece and Italy are under pressure to set up “hotspots” whose precise purpose even EU ambassadors in the same country seem unclear about (Are they registration offices? Refugee camps? Detention centres?). In the meantime, the refugees move on, through Greece and the Balkans into the heart of the European Union, apparently unaware that somebody had other destinations in mind for them.
The search for culprits for this failure has led some in the EU to focus their ire at Greece: If only Greece would register everyone, if only Greece would have set up enough hotspots to accommodate and hold (by force?) its new arrivals, if only it would keep track of people, then the relocation idea would be viable.
Blaming Greek administrative ineptitude is convenient and comes easy to other Europeans, but in this case is completely off the mark. Obviously so, because Italy has had no greater success with the relocation/hotspot approach. In fact, the relocation scheme is profoundly flawed in conception, and could not work, no matter who was responsible for its administration. More than that, in a time of crisis when European ideals are at stake, it is actively harmful.
The current relocation scheme has already eaten up a huge amount of time and political capital, at a moment when both are in short supply. It has spawned many meetings and papers, but the number of people who arrive in Greece from Turkey has not been affected, nor the number moving on from Greece into the rest of Europe. It has increased the sense of distrust and acrimony inside the EU. It has given the EU’s critics a tool to beat European institutions with. It has made the EU look feckless, bumbling and, above all else, ineffective, while exposing it to populist attacks from those opposed even to this very abstract idea of burden sharing.
So what is to be done? A simple reflection makes clear why the relocation scheme from Greece should be scraped and replaced immediately by a voluntary effort based on moral pressure to instead resettle refugees directly from Turkey, ideally already at next week’s EU Council meeting.
Who is relocated? And why?
Many well-intentioned people continue to place their hopes in the relocation scheme as a solution to the refugee crisis. So let us pause for moment to examine what would happen over the next six months if the scheme were implemented as foreseen by its architects. Here is one possible best-case scenario.
Let’s imagine that 100,000 people were to arrive in Greece between 15 February and end of April.
Let’s assume that Greece manages to register every single one of them; that hotspots are set up that not only register but also host these refugees, becoming a string of refugee camps throughout Greece.
Let’s assume that the people who arrive believe in the relocation scheme and patiently wait to be assigned a place in any of the countries where they are supposed to go; and then go. They will not try to cross any borders as they have in the past year, and will not rebel against being held in hotspot/camps until their turn comes
Let’s finally assume that all states that are supposed to take part in this relocation scheme make all places available right away. All administrations involved work smoothly.
Then, at the end of April, the Commission and the EU presidency call a press conference to declare that relocation has been a big European success. A huge mobilisation of resources and total focus by all parties across the EU have made the scheme work as envisaged. And then one journalist asks, like the child wondering about the Emperor’s clothes, what the point of all this was? After all, this scheme will not lead to even one fewer refugee arriving in the EU.
It is much more likely to have the contrary effect. If potential asylum seekers would see this scheme as the only way to get into the EU in 2016, they might – in panic to get of these limited 100,000 places – rush to Greece in the coming months in ever larger numbers. Note that the vast majority of the people who would be relocated from Greece after 15 February are currently in Turkey! The scheme would give people an even bigger incentive to cross the Aegean, to risk their lives and to enrich smugglers.
What would happen once all 100,000 places are taken? It is unlikely that a new relocation quota would pass the Council. Even if it did – for another 100,000 people to be distributed from Greece – the same problem would be posed two months after that at the latest. In the meantime, far-right, anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, anti-refugee parties, boosted by constant press reporting on the progress of the relocations, would get even stronger.
If effective action requires working on the right things, then the relocation scheme fails disastrously because it diverts attention from the only things that really ought to matter now:
How to prevent more people drowning in the Aegean Sea
How to disrupt the operations of people smugglers
How to restore control over the EU and Schengen borders
How to help substantial numbers of recognised refugees find a safe way to the EU, so the EU can share responsibility for the refugees with Turkey
How to improve conditions for the many displaced persons who will remain in Turkey.
The relocation scheme achieves none of these things. In fact, it would be actively harmful. In the extremely unlikely best case scenario of full implementation, it would leave the EU facing a worsening refugee crisis with its ability to forge any future consensus compromised, perhaps irreparably.
If the relocation scheme is abandoned next week: what then?
If this scheme – poorly conceived, impractical, and unhelpful even if implemented – were abandoned, what should replace it?
Let us return to the basic fact that the 100,000 people to be relocated from Greece to EU member states in the next few months are not currently in Greece. They are in Turkey.
Imagine if the relocation scheme were not to require these 100,000 people first to cross to Greece (irregularly, in the hands of people smugglers, resulting in many more deaths), but instead could be implemented in a safe and orderly fashion in Turkey.
In recent days, leaders in the Netherlands and Germany have spoken out about the need to take contingents of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey within weeks – in return for Turkish willingness to take back anyone who crosses to Greece from that point onwards.
This is no simple matter: it would require serious preparation and the full attention of already overstretched administrations. It would take some time for the numbers attempting the Aegean crossing to fall away; in the meantime, Greece would need the administrative capacity to process those who reach the islands. The states in the coalition of the willing need to find ways to work with Turkey on an orderly resettlement process, sending a clear signal to these refugees not to get on boats. This would be a serious test of national capacities and European cooperation. It would need to be the main focus on European summits and technical meetings for the coming months. It can be done, but only if it is taken very seriously indeed.
ESI suggests that the February Council meeting in Brussels declares first that the relocation program is scrapped, or at least suspended. At the same time, it calls upon all countries to voluntarily take at least the number of people they would have been required to take from Greece directly from Turkey.
There would be no coercion. In fact, this step would remove a major argument of those who use this scheme to attack the EU.
There would now be strong moral pressure. After all, this voluntary resettlement scheme is not only designed to help refugees – whose fingerprints will be checked against databases of known terrorists – but also to help Turkey, at a moment when it is under immense pressure from Russian military operations in Syria. How could Turkey’s NATO allies refuse to participate in a voluntary burden-sharing scheme, if it supports Turkey, helps refugees and restores control over Europe’s borders?
The European Union needs trust to work. The relocation debate and its subsequent failure have eroded that trust. A voluntary burden-sharing scheme, as part of the Merkel-Samsom plan, could restore it.
This is not a defeat – but the best way forward for European ideals
Some will argue that this would be a defeat. If the EU cannot make even a modest relocation program work, how can it ever have a shared, centrally administered asylum system?
But this argument is based on denial. Unpalatable and unworkable schemes, like building a wall across Macedonia (a non-EU member) with EU support, so as to trap refugees in Greece (an EU and Schengen member) shows the damage that flawed and muddled thinking is doing to European ideals. Clinging to a poorly designed scheme only adds to the damage already done.
The EU will not get a central asylum system without first resolving this crisis. If anti-EU, illiberal parties gain strength on the back of public fear that mainstream parties and the EU have lost control, the political space for collaboration in this critical area may disappear.
Perhaps a centralised EU asylum system is not an appropriate goal. Coping with refugees in large numbers is perhaps possible for strong and democratically legitimized governments, like Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. The EU as a political entity may never be strong enough to do so. Ironically, if the authority for refugee policy is moved to Brussels, the likely outcome is a less liberal EU stance, with reduced access for refugees.
The debate on future EU asylum policy is a serious one, of course, and arguments can be made on both sides. But anyone who cares about “European ideals” should admit that this moment of crisis is not conducive to a serious debate. The EU has been revealed as strikingly ineffective. The relocation scheme is an abject failure, and could not have been otherwise.
The EU needs to be effective in its response; not in the distant future but in the coming weeks and months. The best way forward is to scrap the relocation scheme at the EU Council next week and to replace it with a voluntary scheme based on the Merkel-Samsom plan. The time to get serious about how to allocate precious focus and resources is now.
Peter Drucker defined the characteristics of effective action as follows: it is action defined by concrete results. It requires working on the right things. It requires clear criteria that enable work on the truly important. Effective executives do not start out with the things they cannot do. Effective executives know that their time is the most crucial limiting factor. To be effective requires eliminating time-wasting activities – reports and monitoring that lead to no results; recurrent meetings that are not focused on what truly matters. An effective executive also takes care not to waste the time of others he or she needs. He or she is always aware that bringing too many people into coordination mechanisms is usually a time waster. As Drucker noted:
“My first-grade arithmetic primer asked: ‘If it takes two ditch-diggers two days to dig a ditch, how long will it take four ditch-diggers?’ In first grade, the correct answer is, of course, ‘one day.’ In the kind of work, however, with which executives are concerned, the right answer is probably ‘four days’ if not ‘forever’.”
On 28 January 2016, the leader of the Dutch Labour Party Diederik Samsom outlined a proposal for how to resolve the migration crisis – first in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant and then on the nightly television programme Nieuwsuur.
The central pillars of his proposals are the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of refugees per year from Turkey to the EU, in parallel to the return of all migrants from Greece to Turkey. It draws on the legal concept that Turkey is a safe country for refugees, and that Greece can therefore legitimately return them to Turkey to process their asylum requests. Samsom’s plan is similar to proposals first made by ESI in September 2015 and further developed since.
In response to Samson’s intervention, Amnesty International issued a harsh press release. It calls these ideas “morally bankrupt” and “tantamount to bartering in human lives.” It claims that they represent “blatant violations of both European and international law.” It calls on everybody not to “be fooled by the humanitarian sheen of this fundamentally flawed proposal.”
There is no question that the status quo is a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe. Thousands of refugees are boarding inflatable boats in a desperate attempt to reach Europe. Every week people die crossing the Aegean. Those who survive face a gruelling journey across South-Eastern Europe in winter conditions.
The refugee crisis is also a potential political disaster for Europe. Many in Europe have opened their arms to the refugees, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been rightly praised for her compassionate response. Yet across the EU, illiberal political forces are on the rise. They advocate doing away with refugee law and asylum altogether. The scramble for a solution is producing dangerous (and doomed) proposals, such as the erection of a new iron curtain in the Balkans north of Greece. The very future of the international asylum system is at stake. Unless mainstream European leaders find a way to combine compassion for refugees with effective control of the EU’s external borders, political support for compassion will soon evaporate.
The Samsom proposal represents a practical and humane solution. At present, the prospect of obtaining protection in Germany is encouraging refugees to take to boats and risk their lives on the Aegean. Samsom suggests replacing this humanitarian disaster with an orderly process that would enable refugees to reach Europe without risking their lives. The goal is to render the hazardous journey unnecessary. But for this to work, it needs to be accompanied by measures that close off the route through Greece.
Instead of attacking the Dutch/ESI proposal in such polemical terms, it would be far more constructive for AI to make an assessment of how this practical solution could be implemented consistently with international law. Instead, AI rejects the proposal from the outset, without analysing it or taking a closer look, based on a number of wrong assumptions and factual and legal errors:
AI claims that readmission of refugees from Greece to Turkey would represent “illegal pushbacks”, arguing that “all asylum-seekers intercepted on the sea crossing to Greece” would be returned. This is wrong; and referring to “illegal pushbacks” is a wilful misrepresentation. Refugees would be returned in an orderly fashion, in safe ferries, from Greece, after a lawful procedure. Nobody would be “pushed back” or put into danger.
It is not illegal to return refugees to Turkey. EU legislation permits the return of asylum seekers to a third country if they can receive international protection in that country. Turkey already has a temporary protection regime for Syrian refugees. It also has a new asylum law from 2013, which UNHCR welcomed as “an important advancement for international protection.” The term “illegal” is therefore highly misleading. There are still steps to be taken on the implementation of this law, but the necessary institutions are already in place. The EU needs to work quickly with Turkey to help it reach the status of a safe third country – an entirely feasible goal.
AI claims that refugees would be denied “due process or access to asylum application procedures” in Greece. This is wrong. Under EU legislation, which has been implemented in Greece, refugees can submit an asylum claim in Greece. The authorities will assess it and determine if Turkey is a safe third country “for each individual case and applicant separately.” If they arrive at the conclusion that this is the case and that the claim is therefore inadmissible, they inform the applicant accordingly and provide him with a document for the authorities of the third country (Turkey) stating that they have not examined the application on merits.
Under Greek legislation, the rejected applicant can then lodge an administrative appeal against the inadmissibility decision within 15 days and has a right to remain in Greece until she is notified of the final decision. If the appeals body upholds the first-instance decision, the applicant can appeal to a court. However, the court appeal has no suspensive effect; the applicant is still obliged to leave.
All of this is lawful. Nothing in this procedure is “breaking the law and flouting international obligations.”
AI is correct to claim that the proposal is “aimed at stopping the flows of desperate people across the Aegean Sea.” We have to replace this Darwinian system, which costs lives and enriches unscrupulous smugglers, with a safe and legal asylum scheme. Resettlement of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Turkey to the EU is such a scheme. For it to work, the illegal route via the Aegean has to be closed, and the most humane way in which this can be achieved is through readmission.
AI criticises Turkey for transporting migrants detected on the way to Greece to the other end of the country. The key point here is that Turkey is implementing this under pressure from EU countries, who are desperate to stop the flow of refugees. If the Dutch proposal were put into effect, there would no longer be any need for this practice.
For anyone concerned about human rights and respect for international law, the appalling status quo should be the starting point. For countries like Germany to welcome refugees, but only after a horrendous journey across Europe, is morally untenable. Europe has unwittingly created a Darwinian system where desperate refugees have to risk their lives in order to improve their situation. We can and must do better. We need to put in place an orderly process in place of the current humanitarian catastrophe. This should be developed by governments, think-tanks and refugee and human rights NGOs, working urgently and in cooperation.
It is also profoundly unhelpful for AI to ignore the challenge of maintaining a political consensus in favour of helping the refugees. The values of compassion for refugees and respect for international law, which AI has for decades upheld so valiantly, are under threat in Europe. The failure of European governments to manage the situation is feeding the rise of Europe’s far right and public opposition to any support for refugees. A few bold leaders, such as Merkel and Samsom, are working to regain control of the situation. AI should be lending its support to constructive proposals, and not dismissing them out of hand.
Dutch plan for EU refugee swap with Turkey is morally bankrupt
A new plan to tackle unprecedented refugee flows to Europe, mooted by the Dutch Presidency of the European Union today, is fundamentally flawed since it would hinge on illegally returning asylum seekers and refugees from Greece to Turkey, Amnesty International warned.
Plans to label Turkey a “safe third country” in order to ferry back tens of thousands of people from Greece without due process or access to asylum application procedures would blatantly violate both European and international law.
“No one should be fooled by the humanitarian sheen of this fundamentally flawed proposal. It is political expediency, plain and simple, aimed at stopping the flows of desperate people across the Aegean Sea,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Director at Amnesty International.
“Any resettlement proposal that is conditional on effectively sealing off borders and illegally pushing back tens of thousands of people while denying them access to asylum procedures is morally bankrupt. The pan-European response to the global refugee crisis has long been in disarray, so solutions are needed, and fast. But there is no excuse for breaking the law and flouting international obligations in the process.”
Under international law, vulnerable people fleeing conflict and persecution must not be denied access to protection and have a right to have their asylum claims considered.
If the plan goes ahead, as soon as this spring, EU countries would begin considering Turkey a “safe third country,” a designation which would lead to them pushing back all asylum-seekers intercepted on the sea crossing to Greece. Amnesty International warned these would amount to illegal push-backs under international law.
In return for Turkey accepting those who are pushed back, a core group of EU countries would voluntarily resettle between 150,000 and 250,000 refugees currently hosted in Turkey.
There are serious concerns about the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers in Turkey. The country hosts an estimated 2.5 million Syrian refugees and 250,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from other countries including Afghanistan and Iraq. Asylum applications for non-Syrians are rarely processed in practice.
In addition, Amnesty International has documented how, since September 2015, in parallel with EU-Turkey migration talks, the Turkish authorities have unlawfully rounded up scores – possibly hundreds – of refugees and asylum-seekers. They have been herded onto buses and transported more than 1,000 kilometers to isolated detention centers where they have been held incommunicado. Some report being shackled for days on end, beaten and forcibly transported back to the countries they had fled.
“Turkey cannot possibly be considered a safe country for refugees. It is not even a safe country for many of its own citizens. In recent months refugees have been illegally returned to Iraq and Syria, while refugees from other countries face years in limbo before their applications will ever be heard,” said Dalhuisen.
“A large-scale resettlement scheme for refugees from Turkey to the EU is a good idea, but making it conditional on the swift return of those crossing the border irregularly is tantamount to bartering in human lives.
“In recent years, blocking one route to Europe has inevitably led to refugees taking another, often more dangerous, route to seek protection. Offering safe, legal routes to Europe is the only sustainable solution for the refugee situation.”
While the full plan has yet to be made public, the Dutch social-democrat leader Diederik Samsom revealed some details in an exclusive interview today with the national newspaper De Volkskrant. The Netherlands currently holds the EU presidency and is seeking backing for the proposal from other EU member states.
 The programme can be viewed here: http://nos.nl/uitzending/12343-uitzending.html. The interview with Samsom starts at minute 9:20 and lasts until 25:00 (in Dutch). ESI’s Gerald Knaus explains the thinking behind the plan from minute 11:25 (in English).
Greek Presidential Decree No. 113: Establishment of a single procedure for granting the status of refugee or of subsidiary protection beneficiary to aliens or to stateless individuals in conformity with Council Directive 2005/85/EC “on minimum standards on procedures in Member States for granting and withdrawing refugee status” (L 326/13.12.2005) and other provisions. Government Gazette of the Hellenic Republic, First Volume, Issue No: 146, 14 June 2013. Art.2, paragraph 2.
“Is this a game changer?”, Dutch Newshour asks yesterday night, as it interviews Social Democrat leader Diederick Samsom about the proposals he presented on how to address the current refugee crisis. On the one hand, he notes, there has to be readmission from Greece to Turkey. On the other hand there has to be an effective coalition of willing EU members to take refugees directly from Turkey.
The interview is here (in Dutch). I explain the thinking behind our plan (in English):
5 October: both Süddeutsche Zeitung and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung write about impact of ESI plan on EU policy debate:Süddeutsche Zeitung – 5 October 2015“Die Kernpunkte des europäischen Angebots stützen sich auf Ideen von Experten der “Europäischen Stabilitätsinitiative”. Ihr Präsident Gerald Knaus sagte im ORF, die Zusammenarbeit mit der Türkei sei die einzige Möglichkeit, die Krise effektiv zu bekämpfen. Die Initiative dazu müsse aber von Deutschland ausgehen, nur dann werde sie von Erdoğan ernst genommen, der angesichts des russischen Vorgehens in Syrien nach Partnern suche.”Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – 5 October 2015“As soon as mid-September, ESI had already proposed a solution to the refugee crisis, which in large part has now been adopted by the European Commission. At the core of ESI’s proposal is the idea that the German government should take the lead and commit to resettling 500,000 Syrian refugees directly from Turkey to Germany … In return, Ankara should immediately readmit all migrants reaching Greece via the Aegean or the Turkish-Greek land border in Thracia. Substantial elements of this idea apparently are part of a plan that the EU Commission says it has negotiated with Turkey, but there is no official confirmation from Ankara about the existence of such an agreement. Before Turkish President Recap Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Brussels this Monday, ESI continued to advocate for a “package deal”: readmission of a number of refugees to be determined in return for the immediate application of the readmission agreement between the EU and Turkey.”
7 October: Angela Merkel on German TV (Anne Will) where she explains her plan:“We must better protect our external borders, but this is only possible if we reach agreements with our neighbours, for example with Turkey, on how to better share the task of dealing with the refugees. And this will mean more money for Turkey, which has many expenses because of the refugees. This will mean that we will accept a set number of refugees, in a way so that the human traffickers and smugglers in the Aegean will not earn money, but in an orderly way … “
15 October interview in Die Zeit with Gerald Knaus: ZEIT: The plan that Angela Merkel will bring to Ankara comes close to a proposal you made already weeks ago – and now it became EU foreign policy. What exactly did you propose?”
“If Turkey is ready to make a big contribution to securing the common border with the EU and, at the same time, will readmit refugees who try crossing that border, then the European Union has to actively support Turkey in return … then Germany should – in return – resettle contingents of Syrian refugees within the framework of a European effort as it already did in the case of other civil wars. The people on these contingents shall be safely brought to Europe and Germany. Instead of chaotic and uncontrolled immigration on dangerous routes as it is now, orderly and safe resettlement of civil war refugees.”
“The new Dutch proposal was hailed by the thinktank that first proposed a version of the scheme, the European Stability Initiative, who published several papers on mass resettlement in September and October. Gerald Knaus, the head of the ESI, said: “What we have seen this week is a race between two ideas – the Hungarian idea of building a fence, and the German and now Dutch idea of making a deal with Turkey that works.” Knaus added: “It’s much too early to say that this is a breakthrough, but it’s much better than the other ideas that have been proposed.”
“The Netherlands is gathering support among a group of EU countries for a plan to accept “a couple hundred thousand refugees per year” from Turkey, in exchange for sending back all illegal migrants that arrive in Greece. The plan was revealed on Thursday (28 January) by Dutch social-democrat leader Diederik Samsom in an interview with newspaper De Volkskrant, and has the support of prime minister Mark Rutte. The Netherlands currently holds the rotating six-month EU presidency. “I think there is a realistic chance that by this spring a leading group of EU countries will have an agreement with Turkey about a legal migration route for a couple hundred thousand refugees per year, in exchange for [Turkey] accepting back everyone who enters [the EU] via Greece,” Samsom told the paper’s Brussels correspondent. The idea is to distribute “between 150,000 and 250,000” refugees among EU countries who voluntarily take part in the plan. A first meeting about the plan took place in December, with Rutte, German chancellor Angela Merkel, Swedish prime minister Stefan Loefven, and Dutch EU commissioner Frans Timmermans. Samsom noted he has been speaking “intensively” with Germany, Austria, and Sweden “because they have social-democrats in the government”. “In the worst case scenario, only these countries plus a few like France, Spain, and Portugal take part,” he said, adding that France has been “dodging” the issue.”
We will from now on call this the “Merkel-Samsom Plan”; a German and a Dutch, a Christian Democrat and a Social Democrat: a grand European coalition of the willing. This a very promising development indeed.
‘Ik was in Izmir en zag: we hebben geen tijd meer’
I was in Izmir and saw: we have no time anymore
The article explains how Diederik Samsom [leader of the PvdA, the Dutch Labour party], on a trip to Turkey that started on 5 December 2015, went on a patrol with the Turkish coast guard and realized that things had to be done differently. From this emerged his new plan to stop the flow of refugees. Prime Minister Rutte immediately called it “Plan Samsom”, with Samsom commenting in response: “Mark does this always very smartly.”
The article notes that it is the height of the waves at sea that determines how many people cross, “not our action plans”. He writes, summarising Samsom’s view, that “we need to move towards a system where the crossing is pointless”.
The article continues that “the district of Izmir in Turkey where refugees and smugglers meet” is a small Syria. Diederik Samsom realised that “this is totally uncontrollable. The squares, the bazaar, the restaurants and the shops, they form a single market for illegal travel to Europe elusive to police control.” The same night Samsom met motivated and frustrated police and border guards in Cesme, opposite the Greek island of Chios. The article quotes Samsom about the island: “You can almost touch it, it is so close”. There is a 20 kilometer-long coastal road. The author quotes Samsom:
“A beautiful coastline with little beaches, with the same scene on each of these beaches. Refugees come running down goat paths, carrying folded rubber boats and luggage. On the beach, [the boats] are inflated quickly, by hand or with air cartridges. Within 10 minutes they leave. The only one that can stop them is the coastguard. But it cannot be everywhere at once.”
“The night when I was there, twenty boats left. We did not manage to catch even one of them. The following day there was a picture in the newspaper of two drowned children, on one of the beaches where I had been.”
When Samsom returned to The Hague he realized that the long-term idea – that asylum claims are handled outside Europe – had to be brought forward dramatically. Samsom elaborated:
“For me it was clear: we do not have years. This should be put on track before the new refugee season, this spring. On the Turkish coast, a kind of highway to Europe has been built. With a complete infrastructure of smuggling networks and – since the Turkish authorities have banned the import of Chinese dinghies – illegal boat factories. This attracts more and more people, especially North African men. The refugee stream will double easily.”
A few days later, Samsom was sitting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
“I told him, it is an illusion to think that if we deploy the coast guard, Frontex in the middle and if we pay the Turkish police, a solution will be found. All these measures contribute, they are needed, but they are not sufficient. The height of the waves at sea determines how many people cross, not our action plans. We need to move towards a system where the crossing becomes pointless. As long as the crossing offers a chance, however small, people seem willing to even lose their children on their way.”
The article notes that the plan that Samson put to Rutte has the charm of simplicity:
“The asylum request of everybody that arrives on Chios, Lesvos, Kos or any other Greek islands is declared inadmissible because [the refugees] come from Turkey, which is a safe country for refugees. They will be returned back there by ferry. However, Turkey will accept them only if large numbers of recognized refugees can go to Europe from Turkey in a legal manner. [There must be] a legal asylum route for a couple of hundred thousand refugees per year. Of this I [Samsom] convinced Mark [Rutte]. On the same day, he called it immediately the Samson plan. Mark does this always very cleverly, in this way we commit to each other.”
More excerpts from the interview with Samsom:
How many refugees can go yearly to Europe from Turkey?
The Turkish say 500,000, as many as possible, but that’s not going to happen. Between 150,000 and 250,000 per year …
Will EU countries receive compulsory quotas?
That was the next issue and we worked on it last month. At first you think: of course everyone has to contribute. However, we did this experiment in the EU last summer with the redistribution plan for 160.000 refugees who were already in Italy and Greece. I remember that I thought at the time: good, those who were not ready to cooperate were outvoted. No single country can block the solution anymore. However, they can actually undermine it and they managed to do so. Compulsory quotas do not work.
So it will happen on a voluntary basis?
Yes. There will be a little table with all the Member States and then there will be many empty spaces after their names. There may be 18 empty spaces, and in ten spaces there will be numbers. I am in intense contact with some of these ten because there are Social Democrat in government. These are Germany, Austria and Sweden, all countries that, just like the Netherlands, have large numbers of refugees. Countries that are convinced that the current influx is unsustainable. The welfare state, which all Social Democrats promote, will collapse if we do not control the refugee flow. In the worst case scenario, only these countries will cooperate with others such as France, Spain and Portugal. If there will be 250,000 legal refugees, Netherlands will have to accept 20,000-30,000. This is considerably fewer than the 58,000 who came last year.
So, even if only a small group of Member States participate, the number of 150-250,000 refugees coming to Europe must be respected?
The leading group that participates will have to accept this number. Otherwise, Turkey will not cooperate.
Then the rest will just lean back (and do nothing).
The risk is enormous. You could also lean back, but this does not work. Germany is convinced that a leading group has to step forward, this is how the EU makes progress. Gabriel (leader of German Social Democrats and Vice PM) said to me: ‘Imagine that we take 300,000 refugees from Turkey every year and we Germans are the only crazy ones to do this – we will still be better off than with the more than one million last year.
Thus, the countries that receive the most refugees will continue to do so?
Yes, but the numbers will be lower and more controllable. Now the refugee stream is Darwinism at its best, the law of the jungle. Look at all the men coming from North Africa. If we make an agreement with Turkey on a legal route, it will be only families coming from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.”
Nonetheless: you reward the countries that disrespect European agreements.
But we will lead a European project. Because the financing will be done with EU money. The costs that the leading group will incur by receiving the refugees will have to be shared by everyone, because this will become the permanent asylum system. I do not have endless patience, even Poland will have to accept it.
You negotiate with Germany, Sweden and Austria. Why not with France, there is also a Socialist government?
France is dodging the issue. PM Valls says ‘intéressant, très intéressant’ when I call and then hopes that I will not inquire further. What I notice is that the French are hoping that this problem will pass them. However, in the meantime Calais is on fire! Paris will need to participate, however, for this some German pressure is needed.
You accept division in the EU on a crucial proposal: that does not look good.
Even if everyone participated, it would not influence the numbers much, the ‘refusers’ are mostly small Member States. It is more a principle than a necessity that ten Syrian families should soon be able to go to Latvia or Czech Republic. We could accommodate these ten families also in the Netherlands, really. What matters is that big countries such as Italy and the UK participate. Receiving refugees and the preservation of the welfare state are fundamental issues. You resolve them only if you dare to look at them from a practical point of view.”
Why will Turkey agree? Now 1.5 million leave for Europe, soon it will be only 250,000.
Turkey knows that the situation is unsustainable. It is like a business deal: If you pull someone’s skin over their ears [meaning: paying someone way too much], then that is immediately the last deal. We need each other. The 3 billion Euros that EU has promised to Turkey will otherwise disappear fast.”
Turkey is not a safe country, according to the UN you cannot send refugees back there.
The developments go fast. I see Alexander Pechtold (leader of the D66, whose party supports the ruling coalition) still stand in the debate on the asylum letter, with such a dismissive gesture: who invents this, what nonsense, this will never happen. No one could foresee back then, not even Pechtold, that Turkey would give Syrian refugees the right to work, that their children are even sooner allowed to go to school before they get asylum status. We are not far from the moment that Turkey will receive the status of a safe [third] country. Then it is possible to return refugees to Turkey under the UN convention. Will this be on time? The puzzle pieces need still to be put, however, we have them all in our hand.
Rutte said in January in the European Parliament that the refugee flow will be reduced in eight weeks. Is the Samsom plan a European policy by the end of March?
I consider the chance realistic that this spring a leading group of EU countries will have an agreement with Turkey over a legal migration route for a couple hundred thousand refugees per year in exchange for the direct readmission of everyone that enters via Greece.
What is Rutte doing this week to put forward the plan in Brussels?
The same as me, but with more executive power. Rutte… spends many hours every day working on. He is very hands-on, almost un-European, where often the meeting is the message. Rutte is well placed in order to solve this problem … When Rutte sees that the time is right he will present it in Brussels.”
And if that time never comes?
That is unacceptable. Then every country puts their own fences which will become a meter longer every passing month. Then all Member States set ceilings for the influx of refugees. The result is the worst of the worst: humanitarian dramas and a still more uncontrollable refugee stream. People will not get discouraged by fences, on the contrary: they will be more motivated to pass them with all the bad consequences. Not long ago we thought people would not be crazy enough to go with their small children in wrecked boats. But they so, even in winter. Refugees deserve a safe haven but the people who live here deserve that we protect their welfare.
If the Turkey-Greek route closes, migrants will choose another way.
The flow will not disappear. Europe is a destination for life. For this we must be proud, but it has also disadvantages. Migrants will indeed try to find another way, however, this Turkish-Greek “highway”, which by now all of North-Africa has discovered, needs to be closed. Let us start with that. I don’t understand how we can put up with an illegal migration of this magnitude.”
Wenn der türkische Premierminister Ahmet Davutoglu diese Woche nach Berlin kommt geht es um viel: die Zukunft europäischer Asylpolitik, die Glaubwürdigkeit Deutschlands in der Flüchtlingskrise, und die Frage, ob Angela Merkel einen Plan hat, der funktionieren kann. Regierungschefs in Europa beschuldigen Merkel sie habe Hunderttausende „eingeladen“ und wisse nicht weiter. Ehemalige Verfassungsrichter und Bundeskanzler beklagen Planlosigkeit. Dabei hat Merkel einen Plan: er beruht auf der Erkenntnis, dass sich Kontrolle über Europas Außengrenze nur in Zusammenarbeit mit der Türkei zurückgewinnen lässt. Dafür muss die EU der Türkei etwas bieten: die geregelte Übernahme von Flüchtlingen, Finanzhilfen, Visumfreiheit. Dafür setzt sich Merkel seit Oktober ein.
Hat sie sich geirrt? Nichts deutet darauf hin, dass sich 2016 weniger Menschen über die Ägäis auf den Weg machen werden als im letzten Jahr. Oder dass weniger Kinder ertrinken werden. Dennoch ist die deutsche Kanzlerin ihren Kritikern voraus. Wer deren Alternativen durchdenkt, erkennt, wie wenig Substanz sie haben. Manche träumen von einem Zaun nach israelischem Vorbild an der deutsch-österreichischen Grenze; oder von Australien, wo Flüchtlinge, die über das Meer kommen, auf Inseln gebracht werden. Doch der israelische Zaun wird von Soldaten mit Schussbefehl bewacht; der Bau hatte Jahren gebraucht. Und die EU hat im Gegensatz zu Australien keine Nachbarn wie Nauru, wo sie Flüchtlinge absetzten könnte. Von rechtlichen, politischen, moralischen Fragen einmal abgesehen: wie das „Schließen“ der Grenzen Deutschlands praktisch aussehen solle sagen Merkels Kritiker nicht.
Denn Merkel hat grundsätzlich recht: wenn Europa die Kontrolle über seine Grenzen wiedergewinnen will, geht das nur mit Hilfe der Türkei. Doch ihre Kritiker haben auch recht, wenn sie an der derzeitigen Strategie zweifeln. So wie man sich in Brüssel die Zusammenarbeit mit Ankara vorgestellt hat wird sie nicht gelingen. Versprechen sind zu vage. Es fehlt an Vertrauen und an klaren Signalen.
Und auch an Realismus. Selbst wenn türkische Politiker etwa regelmäßig versprechen, die Ägäis für Migration schließen zu wollen, wird ihnen das nicht gelingen und es genügt auch nicht zu versichern, dass sie „sich bemühen“. Notwendig ist eine Zusammenarbeit zwischen Griechenland und der Türkei wie es sie noch nie zuvor gab. Die Türkei müsste sich bereit erklären, jeden Flüchtling, der die griechischen Inseln erreicht, zurückzunehmen. Dafür gibt es schon das griechisch-türkische Rücknahmeabkommen; es ist kein rechtliches, sondern ein politisches Problem. Denn es fehlen noch zwei Voraussetzungen: die Türkei müsste im Einklang mit dem griechischen Recht ein sicherer Drittstaat sein, und dafür ihr Flüchtlingsgesetz, das seit 2014 in Kraft ist, umsetzen und bereits gestellte Asylanträge im Land sofort bearbeiten. Und Griechenland müsste sich logistisch vorbereiten, um jeden, der etwa nach dem 31. Januar Lesbos und andere Inseln erreicht, in die Türkei zurückschicken zu können. Das wäre sinnvoller als Hotspots für die Verteilung von Flüchtlingen aus Griechenland in andere EU Staaten, denn letzteres würde an der Zahl der Ankommenden nichts ändern. Die Planung müsste heute beginnen. Dafür bräuchte Athen Hilfe und die erklärte Bereitschaft der Türkei. Dann ginge es um zählbare Ergebnisse: wie viele Asylverfahren werden in der Türkei abgewickelt? Wie viele Leute werden von Griechenland jeden Tag zurückgenommen? Die Umsetzung türkischer Zusagen könnte man täglich überprüfen.
Warum sollte die Türkei darauf eingehen? Hier kommt Deutschland ins Spiel. Es ist unvorstellbar, dass die Türkei in den nächsten Monaten jeden Flüchtling, der Griechenland erreicht, zurücknehmen wird ohne konkrete, substantielle und sofortige Hilfe. Es fehlt in Ankara an Vertrauen in die Zusagen der EU, und dafür gibt es gute Gründe. Von den drei
Milliarden Euro Hilfe für Flüchtlinge ist nichts zu sehen. Das Versprechen auf Visaliberalisierung ist unverbindlich. Der Plan, Kontingente von Flüchtlingen aus der Türkei aufzunehmen, ist derzeit so wenig glaubwürdig wie der blamabel scheiternde Plan 160,000 Flüchtlinge innerhalb der EU zu verteilen. Bei der Kontingentlösung versteckt sich Deutschland hinter der Europäischen Kommission, und diese hinter dem Flüchtlingskommissariat der UN. Man kann eine richtige Idee auch durch schlechte Planung ad absurdum führen.
Denn auch hier gilt: Versprechen genügen nicht. Wenn Deutschland will, dass die Türkei ab dem nächsten Monat Flüchtlinge zurücknehmen soll, dann muss Deutschland bereit sein in diesem Jahr hundertausende Syrer direkt aus der Türkei aufzunehmen. Das kann gelingen, wenn deutsche Behörden dies direkt mit den Behörden in Ankara planen. Dafür bedarf es weder der Europäischen Kommission noch der UN. Merkel könnte Davutoglu anbieten, in einem ersten Schritt bis April 100,000 anerkannte syrische Flüchtlinge direkt aus den türkischen Flüchtlingslagern aufzunehmen. Diese sind bereits erfasst, man kennt ihre Nationalität, es kämen Familien, nicht nur Männer, und man könnte die Fingerabdrücke mit europäischen Datenbanken abgleichen. Dann könnte die Türkei täglich zählen, wie viele Flüchtlinge ihr abgenommen werden. Es gibt auch keinen guten Grund, warum Deutschland oder Schweden ihren Anteil an den 3 Milliarden Hilfe nicht direkt über nationale Organisationen ausgeben sollen, ohne Umweg über Brüssel. Es geht darum Schulen und Kliniken für Flüchtlinge noch in diesem Jahr zu bauen, Lehrer zu bezahlen. Wo Vertrauen fehlt, wie heute zwischen Ankara und der EU, müssen konkrete Resultate dieses erst aufbauen.
Bedeutet dies, dass sich Deutschland damit von einer notwendigen Reform des europäischen Asylwesens abwendet? Nein, im Gegenteil. Eine solche Reform kann nur gelingen, wenn die akute Krise unter Kontrolle ist. Erst dann kann Berlin fordern, dass ab jetzt in jedem Jahr bis zu 100,000 Flüchtlinge, die die EU erreichen, verteilt werden, als Preis für Schengen und Ersatz für das Dublin-regime. Dies entspräche der Anzahl von Menschen, die vor 2014 im Durchschnitt jedes Jahr die EU Außengrenzen überwunden haben. Gelingt es Merkel aber nicht in den nächsten Wochen einen Plan zu entwickeln, der Ergebnisse zeigt, dann führt dies zum weiteren Erstarken jener Kräfte in der EU, die das Asylrecht überhaupt abschaffen wollen; jener die gegen Flüchtlinge, die EU, die Türkei, für Putin und gegen Muslime agitieren.
Deutschland, Europa und die Türkei brauchen einen Merkel Plan B. Darüber müssen Merkel und Davutoglu reden. Davon muss Berlin Ankara überzeugen.
The opposite of a good policy idea is not always a bad policy idea. It can also be a good policy idea badly implemented. This is the big threat facing plans now pushed by Germany of a resettlement of Syrian refugees from Turkey.
Today senior representatives of some European governments meet in Brussels to follow up on the meeting last Sunday of a coalition of willing states, initiated by German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Their agenda is to set up a voluntary resettlement scheme for hundreds of thousands of Syrians under temporary protection in Turkey. They will discuss how, under the condition that irregular migration is stopped, such a scheme could partly replace irregular migration by legal and controlled migration. The aim is a scheme where (some in) the EU and Turkey share the responsibility for the biggest refugee crisis in the world today.
But here is the problem: the approach taken to this needs to be adequate.
There are some ideas floating around which will ensure that a good idea might sink like a stone in the pond of administrative failure:
involve UNHCR, IOM or any other organisation in a prominent role. i.e. a scheme whereby Turkish authorities share registration data with UNHCR.
There is no need to involve UNHCR in this, except as a source of advice.
run such a resettlement scheme through EU institutions, with prominent roles for the European Commission and EU delegations
European institutions should obviously be involved in the debates on this, but they also need not have an administrative role.
In preparing for today’s meeting the European Commission asked how such a resettlement scheme could be “effectively designed”. And suggested that the 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.”
Note: it would take “no longer” than 6 months, after a request from UNHCR to a member state, for a person to actually leave Turkey.
This dooms the effort.
The challenge is to find a quick way to resettle Syrian refugees from Turkey to EU MS.
Direct cooperation with DGMM
The quickest way is to leave out all unnecessary intermediaries. It is the Turkish Directorate-General for Migration Management (DGMM) that has registered the Syrian refugees (as well as all asylum seekers) in Turkey and which has information on them. It would make more sense to work with the DGMM directly.
Of course, MS could dispatch liaison officers to smooth cooperation, but they do not need UNHCR as an intermediary, which would request the data from DGMM and then pass it on to the MS.
MS will need a local partner, or send their own staff on the ground, who will be in touch with the refugees – collect applications and documentation from those willing to resettle, contact them if additional information is needed, let them know when the security check will take place etc. Whether this should be UNHCR or another organisation is a different question. (UNHCR also worked with local implementing partners. E.g. the organisation ASAM – Association for Solidarity with Asylum-Seekers and Migrants – used to register asylum seekers and I think still serves as a first contact point; they then send them to the DGMM.
EU MS should decide on their own profiles, the EC should establish a light framework
The EU should establish a framework together with the EU MS willing to resettle refugees, settling questions such as which nationalities to take – we suggest only Syrians -, how to avoid a pull factor, that a certain percentage should be vulnerable cases etc. However, it should leave it to the EU MS to decide on the specific selection criteria.
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.” For the second and third contingents of 5,000 and 10,000 refugees, respectively, it put a stronger emphasis on the presence of family members in Germany. These family members could submit a request that their relatives be resettled to Germany.
MS should decide on technicalities in line with existing legislation
Under the Humanitarian Resettlement Programme for Syrian refugees, Germany did not grant the resettled refugees asylum (refugee status) or subsidiary protection. It offered them temporary protection in line with the EU’s Directive on Temporary Protection and Germany’s Residence Act (Art. 24 on temporary protection and Art. 23 on Admission in case of special political interests).
UNHCR and Caritas Lebanon made a selection based on applications from refugees. In addition, German embassies made suggestions (humanitarian cases they already knew of), and when the criterion “family members in Germany” was emphasised, refugees were also selected based on the requests filed by the family members in Germany, collected by the German federal states.
All these bodies sent information concerning the selected refugees to the German asylum authority (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge – BAMF), which examined it and then issued admission agreements (Aufnahmezusagen).
With this paper, the refugees could receive a visa at the German embassies/consulates. There they underwent the usual security check, which includes giving fingerprints. Those that did not have passports could receive temporary travel documents based on other identity documents.
Then the majority were flown to Germany. Those that had family members had to travel on their own. The federal states that had to accommodate the refugees without family were informed in time so they could prepare for their reception.
The challenge to resettle 500,000 is of course different. However, the HAP offers some important lessons:
It is not necessary to conduct an asylum procedure. Germany can offer the refugees temporary protection, like it did for the 20,000 HAP refugees. Even if it wants to channel them through an asylum procedure, BAMF can decide cases based on the documentation, like it has done for Syrians since November 2014. So, in practice this means that DGMM sends the required documentation to the BAMF, with German liaison officers smoothing cooperation. Of course, this will mean a lot of additional work for DGMM, so Germany will have to compensate it for it, or send human resources to reinforce it (who could, e.g., contact the refugees if the necessary documentation is not complete).
Germany will definitely need an intermediary on the ground, or provide for it by itself, because there will be issues like having to request from the refugees additional information, informing them about when and where the security check will take place, when they will be flown out etc.
The system will also mean a lot of additional work for BAMF, which will have to examine the documentation and issue admission agreements. The BAMF is already overburdened and in dire need to additional resources. This means that it needs to be beefed up for this specific task too.
As regards security checks, registration, fingerprinting etc., Germany and the other countries should find a system best suited to their needs. The German embassy and consulates in Turkey will not be in a position to process 500,000 people in a year. So Germany & others could send to Turkey, personnel to carry out this task. Doing it bilaterally strengthens the ownership aspect and increases efficiency. Of course, of one of the willing MS is willing to take only a small contingent, it could try to pool resources with another MS, but this should be left to the MS to decide. In the end, it would be German officers checking those going to Germany, Swedish officers checking those going to Sweden etc.)
The participating MS should meet regularly to exchange information and harmonise their approach.
The document states that only refugees who have stayed in Turkey already for between 3 months and 1 year should be eligible for resettlement, in order to avoid a pull factor drawing more refugees to Turkey. This is not enough – refugees will be willing to wait even for 1 year if there is a chance to qualify for resettlement then, so they will be drawn to Turkey. The resettlement should be open to refugees that have been registered in Turkey by the DGMM before a date before the scheme is announced, e.g. 30 December 2015.
How the November refugee summit can fail – and how to get a deal that works
In recent days ESI presented versions of this paper and these arguments to European policy makers.
Presenting ESI proposal at OSCE expert panel in Warsaw
On Sunday 29 November the EU and Turkey will meet at an extraordinary summit in Brussels. The objective of this meeting is to make commitments that will stop the unregulated influx of currently more than 200,000 refugees per month into the EU from Turkey.
There are two ways in which this summit might fail. One would be the absence of any agreement. Since this would send a bad signal to the publics in EU member states, every effort will be made to avoid this.
However, there is a second way in which the summit can go wrong. It is even more dangerous. This is a scenario where the EU and Turkey agree on a deal, but merely set the stage for failure in the coming months, because the influx of refugees coming into the EU from Turkey will not be reduced. Both sides will then blame each other. Frustration will erode already abysmally low levels of trust. Precious time will be wasted and it might become harder to reach a workable deal later.
For the EU to avoid such a “disastrous success” on Sunday, member states need to understand why neither the EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan (from 15 October) nor the current draft statement to be agreed on 29 November will make any significant difference to the flow of refugees. The devil really lies in the detail.
What is wrong with the current draft statement
The current draft concluding statement for the Sunday summit has eleven paragraphs. What do they contain?
There are many references to aside commitments for Turkey and the EU to “meet and talk” more – at regular annual summits; at regular political dialogue meetings; at regular high-level meetings on thematic issues; at regular Association Council meetings; at a meeting at the end of 2016 to upgrade the existing customs union. More meetings and talking might be good, or bad, or meaningless, depending on the results, but it does not change things on the ground, and certainly not in the short term.
This leaves four “substantive” paragraphs: one on visa liberalisation and readmission; one on accession talks; one on EU financial assistance for Turkey; and one on “activating” the October 2015 EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan. To see why these measures will make no real difference to the flow of refugees in the Aegean, let us take a closer look at each.
Visa and readmission
The EU and Turkey launched a formal visa liberalisation process in December 2013. The goal of this process is to remove the requirement for Turkish citizens to obtain a visa for short (up to three months) visits of the EU’s Schengen zone as tourists or for business.
According to the EU roadmap on which this process is based, Turkey has to meet 72 requirements to qualify for visa-free travel. In an October 2014 assessment the European Commission found for 27 requirements that Turkey was “far from meeting this benchmark” or that there were “no particular positive developments to address them.” (see below)
There was always a simple principle: once Turkey meets the conditions of the visa roadmap (at least as much as other countries from the Balkans did who received visa liberalisation in recent years) the Commission will propose to lift the visa requirement.
At present the EU and Turkey aim to agree on the following this Sunday:
“The European Commission will present a second progress report on the implementation by Turkey of the visa liberalization roadmap by early March 2016.”
The European Commission will “present its third progress report in autumn 2016 with a view to completing the visa liberalisation process i.e. the lifting of visa requirements for Turkish citizens in the Schengen zone by October 2016 once the requirements of the Roadmap are met.”
Note: this does not add anything to what was always the case! It was always true that the European Commission would ask member states to lift (by a qualified majority) the visa requirement once the requirements of the roadmap are met. There is no “concession” here. Nor is there any commitment by member states on how they will vote on this in October.
Which raises the question: would it not be better for the EU to see Turkey meet all criteria by March 2016? Especially if this is essential to reduce the flow of migrants across the Aegean?
In return for this non-concession, Turkey is expected to do something that looks superficially important but that will also make no difference:
The EU and Turkey “agree that the EU-Turkey readmission agreement will become fully applicable from June 2016.”
A track record of implementation of the EU-Turkey readmission agreement is one of the 72 conditions in the visa roadmap. The readmission agreement states that Turkey is to take back all third country nationals three years after the entry into force of the readmission agreement, which will be on 1 October 2017.
However, what does it really mean if Turkey agrees to make it “fully applicable” from June 2016? What will be the concrete impact on movements in the Aegean? Most people who reach the EU through the Greek islands are Syrians. Anyone who reaches the EU and applies for asylum cannot be returned to Turkey unless their asylum application is processed and rejected (i.e. they are found to be “economic migrants”, the language the draft statement uses). In 2014, only 5 percent of Syrian asylum seekers were rejected across the EU. Now the rejection rate might be even lower. The rejection cognition rates for other nationalities reaching the EU in high numbers, Afghanis and Iraqis, were also low in 2014.
This significantly reduces the number of people that could be returned. An asylum procedure is usually also a lengthy process since asylum seekers rejected at first instance can appeal and are allowed to stay until the court makes its decision. This often takes a year or more.
There is another problem. Very few migrants apply for asylum in Greece. They apply in Germany or Sweden or other EU countries further north. However, if they reach these countries through the Western Balkans, the EU-Turkey readmission agreement no longer applies. It requires that persons to whom it is applied “illegally and directly entered the territory of the Member States after having stayed on, or transited through, the territory of Turkey” (Art. 4). Those who take the Balkan route enter the EU “directly” from Serbia, not Turkey.
In fact, the EU-Turkey readmission agreement is unnecessary. What really matters is that Turkey already has a readmission agreement in force with Greece since 2002. Between 2002 and the end of last year, Greece asked for the readmission of 135,000 irregular migrants. Turkey accepted 13,100 of these, and in the end 3,800 (3 percent) were returned to Turkey. In 2015, Turkey has accepted more requests. But so far, only 8 people have actually been returned to Turkey this year – by the time Turkey is ready to admit them, they are usually no longer in Greece.
Readmission of irregular migrants from Greece to Turkey
Migrants whose readmission Greece requested
Migrants accepted by Turkey
Migrants actually readmitted
This means concretely that the full entry into force of the EU-Turkey readmission agreement in summer 2016 does not add anything to what the Greece-Turkey readmission agreement already provides for. It does not apply to those who apply for asylum and are waiting for the decision. It does not apply to those who obtain asylum. And legally it does not apply to rejected asylum seekers or irregular migrant who have reached EU territory after transiting through the Western Balkans.
As currently formulated, the commitments to visa liberalisation and readmission appear strong and raise expectations but are in fact weak and inconsequential. They set the stage for another round of mutual recriminations, acrimony and disappointment. And they will not change the dynamic of refugees crossing the Aegean.
Accession process “acceleration”
At the summit, the EU will also commit to open one chapter in the EU accession talks, in December. This sounds good, but what does it actually mean?
Note that this does not actually constitute an “acceleration” of Turkey-EU accession talks. More than one decade after the start of the accession talks, 14 out of 34 negotiating chapters have been opened. In the first five years (2005-2010), 13 chapters were opened; in the second five years (2010-2015) 1 chapter was. Now 1 more will bring the total number to 15. This is still an excruciatingly slow process.
Note also that this is the only commitment concerning enlargement that the EU is planning to make. While there is “language” (as diplomats might say) referring to five other chapters, which have been blocked by Cyprus for many years, all the EU promises here is that the Commission will do “preparatory” work “without prejudice to the position of member states”. In plain language this means that the preparatory work may lead to nothing at all if Cyprus maintains its blockage.
In fact, the problem goes deeper. What does opening a chapter in December mean for Turkish citizens? The chapter concerned is “Economic and monetary policy” (chapter 17). One of the main issues that the chapter covers is the independence of central banks.
According to the recently published 2015 Turkey Progress Report, the past year has seen “increased political pressure on the central bank [which] undermines its independence and credibility.” Will this change just because the chapter will be opened? For the Turkish government, having influence on the central bank is convenient. Maintaining it comes at no cost as long as there is no real prospect of joining the EU. But carrying out reforms is acrtually the only real way for Turkey to “reenergize” the EU accession process. Everything else is political theatre.
The EU also promises money for the refugees in Turkey:
“The EU will provide immediate and continuous humanitarian assistance in Turkey. It will also expand significantly its overall financial support.
A Refugee Facility for Turkey was established by the Commission to coordinate and streamline actions financed in order to deliver efficient and complementary support to Syrians under temporary protection and host communities in Turkey.
The EU is committed to provide an initial 3 billion euros of additional resources from the Union’s budget and contributions from Member States. The need for and nature of this funding will be reviewed in the light of the developing situation.”
Note: the money is not yet available, even though the EU is committed to mobilising it and working on it. 500 million are to come out of the EU budget and 2.5 billion from member states. If and when they will provide this sum of money is unknown. Member states have also committed to increasing funding for the EU’s Syria Trust Fund, which addresses the needs of Syrian refugees in Turkey and other countries of the region. Since September, they have pledged only 49 of 500 million.
The Refugee Facility will become operational on 1 January 2016. A Steering Committee will provide strategic guidance, coordinate with other funding mechanisms, and decide on which actions will be financed. Turkey will be represented on this committee in an advisory capacity. This is commendable. Many Syrian refugees in Turkey are in need of humanitarian assistance, and many of their children are in need of school education; only 200,000 of the 700,000 school-age children actually go to school, due to the language barrier and limited capacities of Turkish schools.
However, even if the education problem were resolved and all Syrian refugees in need received humanitarian aid, would this convince them to stay in Turkey? Many refugees are looking for a place where they can start new lives after many years of waiting – where they can work (in Turkey they are not allowed to), re-train if needed, where there is assistance if they do not find a job straight away, where their children receive good education, which offers them a long-term perspective. In this regard, Germany will remain more attractive in many ways.
The language in the current draft declaration on what Turkey promises to do in order to offer a credible perspective to Syrians in the country remains vague and general (“…Equally, they welcomed the intention of Turkey to adopt immediately measures to further improve the socio-economic situation of the Syrians under temporary protection.”). This will not keep any Syrians from moving to the EU.
Activating the joint action plan
There is one more point in the statement that promises more than it can deliver:
“Turkey and the EU have decided to activate the Joint Action Plan that had been agreed until now ad referenda on 15 October 2015, to step up their cooperation for support of Syrians under temporary protection and migration management to address the crisis created by the situation in Syria. The EU and Turkey agreed to implement the Joint Action Plan which will bring order into migratory flows and help to stem irregular migration.”
How the joint action plan will help to stem irregular migration is not really explained. The draft statements mentions three specific points, all vague. One is cooperation on “economic migrants”:
“As a consequence, both sides will, as agreed and with immediate effect, step up their active cooperation on economic migrants, preventing travel to Turkey and the EU, ensuring the application of the established bilateral readmission provisions and swiftly returning economic migrants to their countries of origin.”
The problem is obvious again: in order to determine who is an economic migrant, an asylum procedure must be completed. How many asylum applications can Greece deal with, and how long will this take? Germany with a huge administration has been able to issue 32,000 decisions on asylum in October. If Greece takes too long this will not have any “immediate effect.”
There is also the – vague – promise to improve the condition of Syrians now in Turkey:
“Equally, they welcomed the intention of Turkey to adopt immediately measures to further improve the socio-economic situation of the Syrians under temporary protection.”
Finally, there is the commitment every EU country makes in every similar statement, from Greece to Croatia to Slovenia, fighting people smugglers. It is not clear why Turkey should be more successful in this endeavour than any other states in South East Europe, in particular since everyone who travels to Greece and is stopped is able to try again until it works.
A deal that works: Merkel Plan 2.0
In recent weeks ESI analysts presented an alternative plan in many European capitals (Berlin, Brussels, Stockholm, The Hague, Vienna, Warsaw). This was an elaboration of the Merkel Plan which ESI published on 4 October:
The European Council on Sunday invites the European Commission to begin right away the process of lifting the Schengen visa requirement for Turkey. This legal process will necessarily last a few months. It should hold out a concrete promise to Turkish citizens: “If Turkey implements the existing readmission agreements with Greece and Bulgaria in full and agrees to take back all new arrivals to these two countries from 1 January 2016, and implements a concrete set of other priority conditions from the roadmap till March, then Turkish citizens will be able to travel without a visa to the EU from 1 April 2016.”
Turkey’s new asylum authority will start to issue decisions in response to asylum claims already in December. Following this Greece declares that it will consider Turkey a safe third country from 1 January 2016.
Turkey and Greece, with support from others (Frontex, the European Asylum Support Office and other EU countries) prepare logistically for Greece to send back refugees to Turkey after 1 January 2016.
Germany, Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands, France and other countries in a coalition of the willing commit to take large contingents of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey. The process of identifying refugee families will begin on 1 January 2016. The first refugees will leave Turkey in parallel to the first readmissions from Greece in early 2016.
If this readmission to Turkey proceeds as planned, the Justice and Home Affairs Council and the European Parliament will vote in March in favour of lifting the visa requirement for Turkish citizens. The decision becomes effective on 1 April 2016.
The EU and Turkey immediately conduct a joint needs assessment to provide assistance to the Syrian refugees in Turkey, with a focus on ensuring education for all school-age children (currently 500,000 out of 700,000 Syrian school-age children do not go to school). They identify the number of teachers needed, where they can be found, which buildings to use for classes, which equipment and textbooks are necessary, and how much all of this will cost. EU assistance will be visible to the Turkish public. In parallel Turkey will propose a gradual opening of the labour market to Syrians who enjoy protection in Turkey.
Another refugee summit in Brussels, and another dishearteningly confused set of conclusions. Which most likely leave everything more or less as it is.
ON THE POSITIVE SIDE: ASPIRATION
“Refugees need to be treated in a humane manner along the length of the Western Balkans route to avoid a humanitarian tragedy in Europe.”
That was the promise made by Juncker before the conference. If this would be realised, it would obviously be a very good thing: “Increasing the capacity to provide temporary shelter, food, health, water and sanitation to all in need.” A worthy aspiration.
How realistic are these commitments, though? It is the end of October. Some conclusions suggest that additional resources may not be available soon:
“Working with International Financial Institutions such as the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Development Bank of the Council of Europe which are ready to support financially efforts of the countries willing to make use of these resources”
Slovenia noted that 60,000 people arrived there in recent days. What does the summit do to help Slovenia, concretely, in the coming weeks? Or Croatia? Or Greece?
Is there a working group to determine where capacities for temporary shelter are most needed? In Slovenia? in Croatia? In Serbia? in Macedonia?
DREAMING AND REST
It would help to know where temporary shelters are needed, or exist now; or how many new ones have to be found. Perhaps this is known, but it is not stated in the conclusions:
“Greece to increase reception capacity to 30,000 places by the end of the year, and to support UNHCR to provide rent subsidies and host family programmes for at least 20,000 more – a pre-condition to make the emergency relocation scheme work; Financial support for Greece and UNHCR is expected”
Note; this does not say how many such places Greece has now. So it is not clear what “increasing” capacity to 30,000 means in terms of additional capacity. Which makes budgeting and raising funding for it tricky. Or assessing the meaning of this commitment.
Note also: this would be sufficient for the number of refugees who will arrive between today, Monday, and next Friday. By the end of the year, these refugees would unlikely still be in Greece.
Plus: these are still rest stations. Nobody will stay in any of these shelters one day longer than necessary. “Host families” for rest stations?
From here on the conclusions become ever less realistic:
“Working with the European Commission and Frontex to step up practical cooperation on readmission with third countries and intensifying cooperation in particular with Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan; Commission to work to implement existing readmission agreements fully and start work on new readmission agreements with relevant countries;”
Anybody who has examined the difficulties of readmitting even rejected Balkan asylum seekers from Germany to Western Balkans countries – which do not oppose taking back their citizens – knows that expecting to do this, on a large scale, with Pakistan or Afghanistan is not a plan, but closer to day dreaming.
This is the least serious part of the conclusions.
“- Finalising and implementing the EU-Turkey Action Plan;
– Making full use of the potential of the EU-Turkey readmission agreement and the visa liberalisation roadmap;”
Turkey was not even invited to this summit. The EU-Turkey Action Plan is empty of content. “Making full use of the visa liberalisation roadmap” means what concretely? We have to wait for another summit.
“- Upscaling the Poseidon Sea Joint Operation in Greece;
– Reinforcing Frontex support at the border between Bulgaria and Turkey;”
What is this supposed to achieve? How will it make any difference?
“- Strengthening border cooperation between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, with increased UNHCR engagement;
– Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania will strengthen the management of the external land border, with Frontex to support registration in Greece;”
Is the aim to slow down people leaving Greece … and has Greece agreed to this? Where would those who are made to stay longer stay in Greece?
Or is the idea to register everyone in Greece … and people then move on? What difference would this make?
“- Working together with Frontex to monitor border crossings and support registration and fingerprinting at the Croatian-Serbian border crossing points;
– Deploying in Slovenia 400 police officers and essential equipment within a week, through bilateral support;
– Strengthening the Frontex Western Balkans Risk Analysis Network with intensified reporting from all participants;”
So there will be more Frontex and more reporting, everywhere! But Frontex is essentially just other European border guards, not magicians or super-heroes. And this seems to assume that the problem in Slovenia or Croatia is a lack of people.
“14. Reconfirming the principle of refusing entry to third country nationals who do not confirm a wish to apply for international protection (in line with international and EU refugee law and subject to prior non-refoulement and proportionality checks);”
How many of those who reach the EU’s borders do NOT wish to apply for international protection? ANYBODY?
Finally, there is this:
“Under the current circumstances, we will discourage the movement of refugees or migrants to the border of another country of the region. A policy of waving through refugees without informing a neighbouring country is not acceptable. This should apply to all countries along the route.”
This either means a dramatic change which will likely cause the humanitarian tragedy Juncker wanted to avoid or it means that waving through refugees should happen “while informing a neighbouring country” a little better. Most likely – and fortunately – it is the second.
If this is what the countries most concerned by this crisis come up with as their operational conclusions we know that there is no plan. It was another summit without a serious discussion. Another missed opportunity.