There has been a lot of speculation about the (allegedly) surprising, for some even shocking, proposal Turkey made on 6 March in Brussels at a meeting in the evening at the Turkish embassy between Ahmet Davutoglu, Angela Merkel and Mark Rutte, on the eve of the European leaders discussing refugees with Turkey on 7 March. EU Observer wrote:
“The bombshell came during lunch when a new plan, to the surprise of many EU leaders, was put forward by Davutoglu. Only a handful had previous knowledge of the plan, and only a few moments before. It appeared that the plan – the quid pro quo mentioned above – has been discussed by Davutoglu, Merkel and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte on Sunday evening at the Turkish EU mission in Brussels.
A source close to Merkel now says that she discovered the plan at the meeting and only discussed it with Davutoglu and Rutte to make it workable. But for most of the participants who discovered it on Monday, she was the brain behind the Turkish paper. “Stop saying it’s a Turkish plan, they haven’t written it,” an angry official from a small member state told a group of journalists.”
In fact, the official quoted here (and many others, including European leaders such as French President Francois Hollande) was wrong.
Turkish officials had discussed ideas similar to those Davutoglu presented to Merkel and Rutte – which were public since September 2015 – for a long time; ESI reports developing these proposals had been translated into Turkish many months before; and ESI analysts have presented these ideas in Istanbul and Ankara numerous times. In early 2016 we made another concerted effort to promote these ideas in Turkey. At the end of February we sent a series of letters to Turkish officials and ambassadors, followed by more meetings, arguing that it was in Turkey’s interest to adopt the Merkel-Samsom Plan. Letters like this one:
29 February 2016
Dear … ,
Please find a short paper with ideas, following up on the things we discussed. I hope it is useful.
Those in the EU who say Merkel has to give up on her idea to work with Turkey are growing stronger. Merkel remains strong in Germany. If there is a real breakthrough in the next days and weeks she could retake the initiative in Europe – but only if joined by Greece and Turkey. This would benefit refugees, a liberal EU, and Turkey all at the same time.
One additional issue we discussed was the paragraph in the paper “Key elements of a resettlement/humanitarian admission scheme with Turkey” that was not agreed upon yet. It would be much better to have a direct link to readmission from Greece, like this:
“The Member States participate in voluntary resettlement on the assumption that Turkey fully implements the existing readmission agreement, agrees to be considered a safe third cojntry by Greece, and that it will cooperate with Greece and the EU efficiently and speedily.”
These are not subjective criteria; they would depend on Turkey – assuming that Greece is helped now to handle readmission.
It would be great to talk soon. Lets hope the next week brings a breakthrough. The key for this lies in Berlin and Ankara.
Best wishes from Istanbul,
Together with such letters we sent policy makers the following short paper with concrete suggestions:
Suggestions for the Coalition of the Willing and Turkey
European Stability Initiative – 29 February 2016
There is a dramatic loss of trust around Europe in current policies on the refugee crisis. However, all the alternatives to close cooperation with Turkey –reducing the refugee flow in the Balkans as decided at the recent Balkans summit in Vienna or pursued already for a long time by the Visegrad group led by Hungary – will not work. Failure only benefits the illiberal, pro-Putin, anti-refugee and anti-Muslim coalition across Europe.
There is a need for a strategy that:
– turns a chaotic and disorderly process into an orderly one,
– supports Turkey immediately through humanitarian resettlements
– supports Greece for it to be able to readmit people to Turkey,
– gets a commitment from Turkey to accept readmitted people speedily from Greece,
– observes international, European and national legislation on refugees.
What has to take shape in March
– A process of orderly resettlement of Syrian refugees from Turkey, beginning in March, of 900 a day, every day (27,000 a month, 108,000 in four months, 324,000 a year). This will continue for the foreseeable future – like the Berlin airlift, which had no end date.
It is crucial that this process begins in March. The fewer intermediaries are involved, the better. Each nation that participates should examine its own legal provisions, see how they can be adapted to this emergency, and how soon they will be able to take people. The perfect is the enemy of the good.
Reach agreement with Turkey that 900 a day for a year is the target but also the minimum goal; if there are further huge waves of refugees in the future from Syria it may be extended. It is a floor, not a ceiling.
– Readmission to begin, ending the movement along the Western Balkan route in the Aegean. Turkey to commit to take back (in principle) everyone who reaches Greece after the day on which the first group of 900 is resettled from Turkey.
Change the incentives for refugees. Readmission from Greece to Turkey and relocation from Turkey will make the crossing of the Aegean pointless and redundant. The better and faster it works, the less people Greece and Turkey would need to deal with four months from now.
What is needed:
– Greece prepares where to hold and process any claims of those to be returned to Turkey.
Setting ambitious/realistic goals, in a permanent working group supported by the coalition of the willing and with Turkey present. Can Greece manage to return all North Africans immediately in March? Can it do the same for all Pakistanis? And some from other groups for maximum impact?
– Strong and simple communication: “Greece considers Turkey a safe third country. Turkey accepts that it is a safe third country for Greece. Your asylum applications will be declared inadmissible. Do not risk your lives, or the lives of your children.”
Very important: images of significant numbers being returned from Greece to Turkey; and of people returning from Turkey to their home countries.
– Turkey does not want to readmit Syrians.
Agree instead that until the summer Greece will not send back Syrians. Then, by the summer, once Ankara (and Syrian refugees) see that the resettlement to the EU is serious and substantial Turkey will start taking back also Syrians. Turkey will want to first see that the EU does help with Syrian refugees directly and in a substantial way. This will coincide with visa free travel in place for Turkish citizens.
– Greece does not have the capacity to hold people and to process the asylum claims of those who decide to make one in Greece instead of being returned right away. This has to be build up.
– Turkey and Greece need to review the protocols and practices of their existing readmission agreement (for instance: it seems that the “accelerated procedure” of 7 days for Turkey to deal with Greek claims is only applicable to the land border; the normal procedure is 75 days. It should be 5 days for every case; etc.).
– Turkey and the EU need to develop a strategy to provide incentives to as many as possible of those who are returned to go on and return voluntarily to their home countries – vouchers for North Africans and Pakistanis to fly back right after they return to Turkey, etc …
– For those who decide to then apply for protection in Turkey and become asylum seekers there: Turkey needs to be ready to deal with this. And should get immediate support to build reception facilities.
Some issues to address
TURKEY: committing to larger and faster readmission from Greece is not easy politically. The history of negotiations over the Turkey-EU readmission agreement testify to this. And yet it is crucial: no resettlement is sustainable without such control in the Aegean.
There is, however, more that the EU can do to help Turkey – and convince the Turkish public:
– The European Commission begins right away the process of lifting the Schengen visa requirement for Turkey, launching the process to amend regulation 539/2001. This legal process always lasts a few months.
But the EU should hold out a concrete promise to Turkish citizens with concrete dates:
“If Turkey implements the existing readmission agreements with Greece in full and agrees to take back all new arrivals from 15 January 2016 and implements all requirements from the visa roadmap concerning the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey until 30 April, Turkish citizens will be able to travel without a visa to the EU as of June 2016.”
If this is backed by the Commission and Germany and others, this would be a powerful signal.
This should be targeted at the two key requirements Turkey must meet:
fully implement the readmission agreement with Greece,
be a safe third country and fully implement its 2013 law on foreigners.
There is no good reason at all to either link visa liberalisation to the EU-Turkey readmission agreement (rather than to effective readmission from Greece) or to delay it until October. The EU needs Turkish support now. And Turkey should get visa free travel as soon as possible.
– The EU offers to delink visa liberalisation and the EU-Turkey readmission agreement provision for third country nationals (which was supposed to enter into force only in 2017, and was then brought forward to June 2016).
The EU-Turkey Readmission Agreement is the worst of both worlds: Under this agreement in theory everybody who reached the EU from Turkey in the past five years could be returned. (Article 2 – Scope) There is no provision that says only people who arrive in the EU after a certain date qualify. At the same time the agreement does not work, beyond what already exists in the Turkey-Greece Readmission Agreement, since none of these people reached the EU directly from Turkey (they left Greece and re-entered the EU from Serbia).1
GREECE: For Greece to send larger numbers of refugees for readmission to Turkey is a major administrative challenge. In addition, most people in Greece do not believe Turkey will take people; many (including people close to Tsipras) doubt that the EU will resettle serious numbers from Turkey. I heard this many times in Athens recently.
Due to the above, for Greece the following is important:
– Greece sees resettlement from Turkey taking place.
– The EU will help Turkey concretely to improve conditions for asylum seekers and Syrians offered protection in Turkey (as part of the 3 billion package, or through direct bilateral aid).
– Germany, the Netherlands and others will strongly oppose any talk of Greece being suspended from Schengen.
– The European Commission and major EU members will not support any efforts to build a wall across the Balkans north of Greece to keep refugees from moving on.
– The strategic (and achievable) goal of German-Dutch policy is to have no Balkans route at all. But until the readmission-relocation scheme starts to work in the Aegean, the route should remain open.
On the key practical issue of preparing for and implementing readmission Greece will receive strong support from Frontex and EU member states.
The case to suspend relocation
Putting an end to the current relocation scheme from Greece (and Italy) would make all the above steps easier to reach. It would send a strong signal that Germany and the EU have learned from the experience of recent months. What is now proposed is different (and as opposed to previous relocation, it will work).
An early suspension of this would achieve other positive effects:
– The limited Greek administrative capacities are better focused on preparing for readmission – the same is true for technical help to Greece.
– This would make it easier to enlarge the Coalition of the Willing. Every country should be invited to take voluntarily at least the same number of Syrian refugees from Turkey as they would have taken from Greece.
So was the breakthrough on 6 March also a surprise for us? Yes, it was.
Since September 2015 ESI had argued – in presentations and meetings – that Turkey should offer to take back everyone who reaches Greece and that in in return the EU should resettle substantial numbers of refugees directly from Turkey. However, by early March we had concluded that Turkey was not in fact prepared to take back Syrians before summer 2016 and before there was serious resettlement and visa liberalisation was within reach. It was a surprise for us, therefore, to learn that on 6 March Turkey was ready to embrace the whole Merkel-Samsom Plan immediately … a bold move by the Turkish prime minister.
What was not a surprise at all was the fact that in return Turkey would demand that visa liberalisation be realised before summer 2016 … we had been arguing for this for months already in every one of our meetings in Ankara and Istanbul.
Interesting interview in Dutch daily paper NRC with the leader of the Labour Party, Diederik Samsom. He was one of the key players persuading the Dutch EU presidency and his coalition partner Mark Rutte to back the Merkel Plan and talks with Turkey … and thus it became the Samsom plan as well. Samsom explains how this happened, and what should happen next.
The original interview (in Dutch) is here: http://www.nrc.nl/next/2016/03/29/ik-verzoen-me-met-de-schade-het-resultaat-is-bi-1604109
“I reconcile myself to the damage, the result is in ‘
Interview with Diederik Samsom
Samsom called the European agreements to stem the flow of migrants across the sea “hard and humane”. The Labour leader looks back at his role in the deal with Turkey and at the fierce criticism he received for it.
From our editors Stéphane Alonso and Annemarie Kas, The Hague.
Reach your goal, reap no appreciation. The recently concluded refugee deal with Turkey has, politically, cost PvdA (Party of Labour) leader Diekerik Samsom more than it brought him for now.
His appeal to start with an ‘air bridge’ from Turkey angered his coalition partner VVD and his proposal to send refugees back to Turkey is opposed by humanitarian organizations and legal experts. Now there is a deal with precisely these two elements: fewer illegal migration (return) in exchange for more legal migration (airlift). This should discourage refugees to make the dangerous crossing and at the same time offer them a safe alternative in Turkey. “Hard and humane,” Samsom calls the agreement.
What role did Samsom actually play in this story? According to Gerald Knaus of the think tank European Stability Initiative he was “very important”. Knaus is the spiritual father of the deal. But his ideas, he says, only took off when Samsom and German Chancellor Angela Merkel made them political.
Next weekend Samsom will go to Lesbos to see how, and if, the agreement is being implemented. The challenge is enormous: from the 20th of March refugees are no longer allowed to travel on to the Greek mainland, but the first readmissions are schedule for around the 4th of April. The administration is now preparing for the new procedure. However, aid agencies withdrew last week because shelters on the Greek islands are said to be turned into ‘detention centers’.
Do you understand that aid agencies have withdrawn their support?
“I do not understand what it is that they no longer want to be a part of. Aid organizations were not involved in the asylum procedure and neither should they be. They help and support the refugees. I am sorry if this withdrawal remains: the critical eye of Save the Children is an added value on those islands. And of course the asylum procedures must comply with international treaties, that is my starting point. ”
What is your first impression: does it work?
“There was not enough shelter during the first days, but now there is work to create better care for women and children. The inflow is declining. Not to zero, but passing from 2,500 a day to around 200 is a significant decline. Whether this decline continues remains to be seen. ”
When will the EU start to take refugees in from Turkey?
“As soon as Turkey starts with taking back refugees. Ideally, the same hour, the same minute even. ”
The images of refugees that have to be returned will be quite shocking. Do you find that difficult?
“That this is uncomfortable is indisputable. But the point is that no more people drown. ”
Who still dares to cross to Greece, forfeits his chance of legal migration to Europe. Is such a harsh punishment necessary?
“That is not literally what is put in the agreements. We want to help the most vulnerable, people in eastern Turkey who have nowhere to go, have nothing and are dependent on food aid. The people who cross are still those who can afford it. This form of Darwinism is what we oppose. We are investing 6 billion euros in improving the situation for refugees in Turkey. For that reason I would avoid the word punishment.”
Non-Syrians have less protection in Turkey. According to Amnesty, Afghans are harshly deported. Can you return these refugees to Turkey?
“We (the Netherland) also deport people back to Afghanistan.”
Not without an asylum procedure. Aren’t these deportations alarming?
“There is reason to be alert. If refugees do not receive protection in Turkey, they do not go back. That is clear. However, this creates a gap and the concept falls to pieces, which is also not what you want. Turkey must therefore give everyone the same protection. This is also what is agreed upon. ”
Turkey thinks differently about fundamental issues such as press freedom and human rights. Did you sell your soul?
“No. I will not let 2.7 million Syrians become victims in Turkey because Erdogan does not behave as we want him to. We also can refuse to talk to Turkey: we did that for ten years and that certainly did not improve the situation. ”
The EU previously signed an agreement with Turkey, in November last year. The country then promised to stop refugees in exchange for 3 billion euros. Nothing came of it. Samsom realized during a visit to Izmir in December that the Turkish guards would never win the cat-and-mouse game with refugees. On the plane back to the Netherlands Samsom read the plan of Gerald Knaus: a Eureka moment. He discussed it at the coalition meeting and on the 17th of December Rutte presented it at a mini-summit of EU leaders in Brussels as the ‘Samsom Plan.”
Why on earth did they use this name?
“It was a smart move by Mark Rutte, directed at the Austrian leader Werner Faymann, like me a Social Democrat. He thought: if I say that it comes from Samsom, Faymann has to listen. Typically Mark. ”
Chancellor Angela Merkel was already working on it by then?
“Yes, much earlier. Only she put emphasis on the legal migration, while the plan only works if you also tackle illegal migration. Knaus needed someone who could take this policy to the next level. He himself was convincing civil servants, but the impact of this is limited. ”
What did Rutte report to you from Brussels?
“It was well received, but as a sort of Plan B. The original plan was still just to stop everything.”
The first time you spoke publicly about this plan, you said that people would be returned “by returning ferry”. That was perceived wrongly, also by the European Commission.
“That’s right. We could have done things better along the line. On the other hand, I felt inclined to explain the plan as well as I possibly could to everyone. ”
You visited European Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos (Migration) and President Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Commission.
“The three of us talked about the plan for 20 minutes, in every detail. I realized again how strong Knaus’ idea was. ”
On March 3rd you added something else: Europe had to start soon with resettlement from Turkey. You received strong criticism.
“Angela Merkel was just before state elections then, so she simply could not say this. It would have been much better if she would have done it, because, who am I? But someone had to say out loud that the EU wants make legal immigration possible. There, the Turkish negotiators were stuck. They thought: we do not want to be an open-air prison “.
You got Mark Rutte angry.
“Mark made a different assessment of the negotiations. He said: as of yet we are not prepared for an airlift. I do not know his definition of “as of yet”, but three days later it was on the table. ” Thanks to your statements in the press?
“I do not know. I only know that on Thursday the cabinet still said nothing happened in the diplomatic area, and on Sunday the Turks were on board.”
Turkey suggested that for every refugee they accepted back from Greece, they could send one Syrian to the EU. Who came up with that?
“I did. Given their mistrust we had to find a way to be on an equal footing. That was difficult. Mark thought: then they will let a million people go to Lesbos and we will have one million refugees. Various formulas came along, “one plus five minus two,” it seemed like mathematics. ”
In the Parliament and the Dutch public opinion your efforts were not appreciated.
“I was not concerned with what should have happened here in terms of publicity. That was not important enough to pay much attention to. ”
You still have a parliamentary group and a political party you need to take into consideration? Elections are only a year away.
“This is all true. I am not taking this lightly. But I reconcile myself to it, because the result is in already. If you think with everything you do “I want to do this, but without damage to the party” then nothing happens. Absolutely nothing. I am ready to tell my supporters that there are uncomfortable parts to this story. That there is a limit to what we can handle as a country. That refugees should be manageable. ”
Wouldn’t it be better if you started working in Brussels, far away from the village mentality of the Hague?
“I do not see it like that. Often enough I do not enjoy my position, but this time I coincidentally found myself in a place where I could do the right thing. Certainly I was not alone. If Angela Merkel had not pulled hard, and if Mark had not been so hyperactive, it would not have been successful. Somewhere along the way Mark made this joke: gosh, I need to call this the Rutte plan, because it seems to be successful after all. ”
EU-Turkey deal and the future of asylum – Part One
On 18 March, the European Union and Turkey reached an agreement, calling for “swift and determined efforts” to stop irregular migration in the Aegean. EU member states also asked the European Commission “to coordinate all necessary support for Greece.”
Ten days later, three things are obvious: first, no credible plans for implementing the EU-Turkey agreement had been prepared before 18 March; second, the steps announced by the European Commission since then to implement this agreement are inadequate: third, if all measures agreed on 18 March are adopted now then the EU-Turkey can turn out to be the breakthrough the EU has been trying to find for many months.
As Jean-Claude Juncker put it in his State of the Union speech on 9 September 2015, this is “not the time for business as usual”; there is a need for a genuine, bold European response; and “the first priority for the EU is and must be addressing the refugee crisis.” Here is a concrete suggestion how all of this might be done.
This essay – part one in a series of blog entries – outlines what needs to be done for the credible implementation of the EU-Turkey Agreement. The next essays will look at other elements of the deal: prospects for voluntary resettlement from Turkey, the visa liberalisation effort, and finally how successful and complete implementation of the EU-Turkey deal can put down a foundation for a future EU asylum policy.
The first communication sets out six principles for EU-Turkey cooperation. The first principle puts human rights and legal safeguards of irregular migrants and asylum seekers at the centre of all EU policy. The Commission states, specifically, that concerning readmission from Greece to Turkey:
“it is self-evident that the arrangements for such returns, both of those in need of international protection and those who are not, can only be carried out in line with the refugee protection safeguards that have been put in place in international and EU law.” (page 2)
The report refers to the EU Asylum Procedures Directive, which “lays down the particular legal and procedural parameters to be respected. There is therefore no question of applying a “blanket” return policy, as it would run contrary to these legal requirements.” (page 3) And the Commission points out that in accordance with this directive:
“a number of safeguards need to be respected. Having first been duly registered and identified in line with EU rules, a person that has lodged an asylum claim in Greece should be given a personal interview when the responsible authority considers that the individual falls into one of these categories of inadmissibility. This allows a screening to occur to identify whether there are particular circumstances that arise. There is also a right to appeal against the inadmissibility decision.”
The report notes that this requires changes in Greece and in Turkey. What is required in Turkey in particular are “access to effective asylum procedures for all persons in need of international protection … and ensuring that protection equivalent to the Geneva Convention is afforded to non-Syrians, notably those returned.”
There is a gap, however, between the specification of WHAT should be achieved and the vagueness concerning HOW these commitments are supposed to be realised. The section on “Practical Aspects” is less than a page long. Two statements in this section stand out:
“The capacity of the Greek Asylum Service should be increased to enable expedited readmission to Turkey as well as rapid acceptance of asylum applications. Appeal Committees should also be able to rule on a high number of appeals within a short period of time.”
“The European Asylum Support Office EASO should also be called upon to support the Greek authorities in quickly and effectively processing applications and returns, if necessary through an additional and targeted call for assistance from the Member states.”
This is a striking statement, suggesting that two days before agreeing with Turkey on a strategy which relies completely on legally sound and efficient asylum procedures in Greece the European Commission barely acknowledges that the capacities of the Greek system are extremely limited. The Commission notes that perhaps – “if necessary” – readmission and fast asylum procedures might require an “additional” call for assistance to member states.
A similar disregard for the logistical challenges of managing asylum claims in Greece and readmission from Greece can be found in a power point presentation on “Managing the Refugee Crisis” which the European Commission made available on the day of the European Council on 17 March. This presentation has 30 pages. Only one refers to readmission between Greece and Turkey, and all it says is this:
Readmission – a Central Element of the
EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan
The Commission proposed operational arrangements to make the readmission procedure for economic migrants from Greece to Turkey more efficient
The Commission, supported by Member States, should further step up engagement with third countries to ensure easier readmission of migrants which are not entitled to international protection
Turkey and Greece have progressed in their discussions to establish much more effective readmission operational procedures, including the deployment of Turkish liaison officers to 5 Hotspots
This contrasts with 6 slides on the EU internal relocation scheme (from Greece to other EU member states), which complements a very long section (almost 14 pages) on relocation in the Commission’s First Report on Relocation and Resettlement, published on 16 March. Accelerating relocation, which the Commission admits failed to deliver adequate results with only 937 out of 160,000 people relocated as of 15 March is presented as a matter of urgency. No mention is made of the fact that relocation adds to the work load of the small staff of the Greek Asylum Office, and no indication why this should now work better in Greece, when it has also failed in Italy in recent months.
Reading the Commission documents prepared for the summit on 17/18 March it seems as if relocation –invented by the European Commission and presented as its flagship project in September – continues to be treated as a priority. And that readmission is considered above all else as a task for Greece, even if it might require a bit of help by member states. This competition for scarce resources between different priorities is not even acknowledged.
EU-Turkey deal, Human Rights and Human Resources
As a result, the European Commission could not answer the obvious question raised by the EU-Turkey Agreement on 18 March: how to implement it in line both efficiently and in line with the declared commitment to respect “relevant international standards.”
How would such a policy work without a sufficient number of case workers in the Greek asylum system, without sufficient people on appeal committees, without clear and credible guidelines? This lack of preparation recalls the experience with relocation: announced as a grand scheme in September 2015 by Commission president Juncker in the European Parliament it then became a constant embarrassment after it was decided. This is particularly problematic for Greece: once again an EU policy is developed with no regard to practical implementation, which is then delegated to the Greek administration, which will be held responsible for its failure.
It is also striking that the Commission did not learn from the experience with previous calls on member states to second personnel. In September, the European Commission and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) called for 374 migration experts and 1,412 border guards, along with liaison officers from all EU member states to both Italy and Greece. As of 18 March, almost six months after the deal entered force, only 201 experts and 356 border guards were made available. Seven EU member states – Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Malta and Sweden – did not appoint their liaison officer to Greece.
For Greece this has been the worst of all worlds. It was asked to implement a scheme that was not well thought through (and that for this reason also failed in Italy), which was badly prepared, and which has never received sufficient support from other member states. In the end, however, Greece was blamed for the failure.
On the day after the EU summit – on 19 March – the European Commission for the first time provided details about the human resources needed to implement the EU/-Turkey agreement:
„Around 4,000 staff from Greece, Member States, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and FRONTEX:
For the asylum process: 200 Greek asylum service case workers, 400 asylum experts from other Member States deployed by EASO and 400 interpreters
For the appeals process: 10 Appeals Committees made up of 30 members from Greece as well as 30 judges with expertise in asylum law from other Member States and 30 interpreters
For the return process: 25 Greek readmission officers, 250 Greek police officers as well as 50 return experts deployed by Frontex. 1,500 police officers seconded on the basis of bilateral police cooperation arrangements (costs covered by FRONTEX)
The Commission stated that the necessary EU support would be coordinated by Maarten Verwey, a Dutch economist and a Director-General of the Commission’s Structural Reform Support Service. Verwey is already been based in Greece in the context of the reforms needed for the disbursement of the Greek bailout. Once again the EU defines its role as providing support to Greece through secondments of officials by member states as the main tool. Once again the ultimate responsibility for success and failure depends on overstretched Greek public servants.
It is highly likely that again things will turn out as bad or worse than they did with relocation. To resolve cases quickly while upholding high legal standards requires sufficient human resources. It requires a huge effort on the part of civil servants who have seen their living standards erode for many years already. This would be a challenge even for a well-funded, well-organised and well-staffed asylum service.
The administrative challenge for Greece is huge. The political pressure is great. Many human rights organisations are certain to attack the efforts of the Greek asylum service if it fails to deal with applications in line with the standards foreseen and reaffirmed by the EU itself. At the same time Greece will be blamed if it fails to resolve cases quickly. At the same time Greece will be left alone with most of the refugees whom it is not able to return to Turkey – except for those, perhaps a few hundred (at the very best a few thousand) per month, whom it might be able to relocate. Add to this the problem, recognised by Greek officials, that the faster relocation works, the more of a magnate for refugees Greece might become. If case of failure Greece would make an easy scapegoat. This is a demotivating and inefficient way to proceed, and one that is almost certain to fail.
A Juncker Plan for an EU Asylum Support Mission
A better way forward would be for the Greek government to ask the European Commission to respond to an unprecedented and vitally important challenge with an extraordinary, and truly joint mission between the EU and Greek officials: to launch a first fully European Asylum Support Mission (ASM) where responsibility is shared, the effort fully funded by the EU all Greek and EU officials are paid the same, work together in mixed (multilingual) teams, under a joint double-headed leadership made up of one Greek official (the current director of the Greek Asylum Service) and a former or current head of an EU member state asylum office seconded to Greece.
These two would implement Greek legislation, report both to the Greek government and to the European Commission and manage a coherent European team of officials, whether case workers, interpreters and translators and other officials. The European co-head should also proactively push member states to second people with expertise from their administrations, paid for the duration of this work from the Mission’s budget; and if this fell short of needs, they would be able to hire people directly.
This European Union Asylum Support Mission could – if it works – also become an example for future EU asylum policy operations in all frontline states which face similar challenges. It would be a practical step towards a common European asylum space. It would put more than fine words behind the promise of due process. And the people who are granted asylum by this mission would be relocated to other EU member states.
In a recent issue of Forced Migration Review the Director of the Greek Asylum Service, Maria Stavropoulou noted that the time had come for a “major overhaul” of refugee protection in Europe. There she concludes with two suggestions:
Create meaningful management plans and budgets for refugee protection in the EU as a whole, rather than expecting individual member states to do so on their own: “it makes little sense to harmonise laws but not budgets …”
The EU’s member states must start to perceive Europe as a single asylum space and work towards these goals.
The current need to improve the capacity in Greece offers an opportunity to “work towards” the goal of a single asylum space, by creating an option for frontline states to share responsibility (and costs) fully with other member states in an emergency. To paraphrase one famous European
“Europe will not be built all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements …”
Reasons to be anxious, Monday morning after the deal was made
Since Friday many have asked ESI if we are confident about the refugee situations – now that the Merkel-Samsom Plan we have argued for so long has been adopted by the EU and Turkey. We are not confident. The opposite of a good plan is not only a bad plan, but also a good plan badly implemented.
No deal would have been the worst outcome for everyone – an EU in which solutions of the refugee issue come at the expense of one member (Greece) and where the leaders most committed so far to a humane solution (the Merkel government) are weakened is not going to find a good way forward.
But a good plan that is badly implemented is little better. And the signs from Brussels so far on implementation – since Friday’s agreement – are not encouraging.
We can be confident only once the first 50,000 Syrian refugees have left Turkey on planes to Europe; and once we see a credible administration in place in Greece to deal with asylum requests and readmission in line with the principles agreed last week.
It is clear that this administration has yet to be built. Would it have been better if efforts to do so had started earlier? Yes, but this is water under the bridge. What is a real cause for anxiety is looking into the near future: what we know so far about how this effort is supposed to be carried out in the coming weeks. It almost ensures failure.
And human rights organisations? Credible implementation of last week’s agreement in all of its aspects – due process readmission and resettlement – should be the focus of anyone who cares about a humane solution to the refugee situation. This is the time for constructive, tough debate. It is the time to say “yes, but”, not “no”, or “not this but that.” It is also a time for admitting, humbly, that policy makers and officals face incredible pressures and unprecedented challenges. The reason to be critical is not to be smug, but to help steer this in a good direction.
The next days (weeks) will be chaotic. This is inevitable; after all, a chaotic situation existed for months already. What is worrying is that bad planning of the implementation of the agreement ensures that chaos will continue for far longer than necessary.
What happens in the next months will decide how history judges the Juncker Commission. The stakes could not be higher for the EU, for refugees and for Greece.
Interview in Spanish: http://www.lavanguardia.com/internacional/20160321/40582387072/turquia-atiende-mejor-a-los-refugiados-que-grecia-las-llegadas-continuan.html
This morning on Australian public radio on the implementation challenge: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/eu-and-turkey-deal-to-tackle-refugee-crisis/7262338
Rays of sunlight on the morning of the European Council
A Friday that starts with a sunrise like this, above the the roofs of Paris, has to go well. And it did.
First, an ESI newsletter went out early in the morning, to be done just as these rays of sun lit up the sky. There was then a lot of positive response during the day, including from important institutions and media.
Next I learned that the internal debate in the EU and in Brussels is shifting away from focusing on relocation towards focusing on resettlement (as we had argued for weeks, sometimes feeling like Don Quijote taking on windmills.) One small step in this (right) direction that is being discussed would be to allow countries to chose whether to accept refugees from Greece or from Turkey directly. The logical next step would be to suspend the focus on relocation altogether. And to do instead what everyone claims is the priority: focus on the EU’s external border in the Aegean.
Third, Greece reminded the rest of Europe today that it is still in the EU, can veto decisions and assert its interests, and that closing Balkan borders to trap people in Greece would trigger a strong and justified reaction. While relocation is not a solution for Greece but a trap desguised as “help”, attempts to close the Balkan route and turn Greece into a huge refugee camp would be an openly unfriendly act. It would undermine hope of working with Greece in the Eurocrisis, and paralyze EU decision making. No serious leader in the EU can want this. One wonders: what were the Hungarians, Slovenes and Austrians thinking … that Greece would just sit and watch as they build a fence?
Fourth, as the idea of “closing” the Balkan route is being looked at more seriously, it is becoming clear to anyone that it is a red herring. Macedonia will not allow itself to be turned into the glacis of Central Europe. It will not do Slovenia the favour and build the wall that Slovenia – the open door to the Schengen zone – does not want to build itself for good reason.
Finally, the leading Turkish expert on refugee issues – now a scholar at Brookings in DC – Kemal Kirisci has published a new paper on the crisis for the EPC. Kemal strongly backs the Samsom plan and the ESI proposals, as the best way forward for Turkey, as well as for the EU. This is very encouraging news, as we head to Istanbul and Ankara for presentations next week. Reading his paper is a great way to end this day:
If only Greece, Turkey and Germany come together around a credible strategy, this might actually work – and now there are another few days until the Brussels meeting between the EU and Turkey in March to achieve this.
Herr Knaus, Sie haben mit Ihrer Denkfabrik „Europäische Stabilitäts-Initiative“ schon wenige Wochen nach der deutschen Grenzöffnung einen detaillierten Plan vorgelegt, wie die Flüchtlingskrise entschärft werden könnte. Inzwischen gelten Ihre Ideen als Vorlage für Angela Merkels jetzigen Versuch, den Flüchtlingszustrom auf der Balkanroute aufzuhalten. Viele sprechen bereits von der letzten Chance der Kanzlerin. Sind Sie der Drehbuchautor für Merkels Flüchtlingspolitik?
Gerald Knaus: Ich hoffe es. Wir haben unseren Plan in den vergangenen Monaten vielen Regierungen in ganz Europa präsentiert und uns kritischen Fragen gestellt. Seitdem sind wir mehr denn je von unserem Plan überzeugt. Mitte September haben wir das erste Mal geschrieben, dass in der Flüchtlingskrise nur ein Ausweg gefunden werden kann, wenn es eine Lösung zwischen Deutschland, der Türkei und Griechenland gibt. Denn nicht nur in Deutschland hat die Bevölkerung hat Angst davor bekommen, dass die Politik die Kontrolle verloren hat. Unser Plan ist der beste Weg, um die unkontrollierte Zuwanderung der Flüchtlinge unter eine Kontrolle zu bringen und gleichzeitig das Flüchtlingsrecht in Europa zu bewahren. Denn all jene Populisten, die von Victor Orban angeführt werden, würden das Asylrecht am liebsten abschaffen.
Was ist der Kern Ihrer Idee?
Knaus: Für Griechenland und für Europa gibt es faktisch keine Möglichkeit, Flüchtlingsboote auf dem offenen Meer zu stoppen. Die Idee, dass die Griechen ihre Marine einsetzen und die Grenze in der Ägäis dichtmachen könnten, ist absurd und nicht umsetzbar. Die einzige Möglichkeit, die lebensgefährliche Flucht über das Mittelmeer zu unterbinden, liegt in einer Zusammenarbeit von Griechenland und der Türkei. Die wird es aber nur geben, wenn eine Gruppe europäischer Staaten, angeführt von Deutschland, der Türkei ein seriöses Angebot macht, die Verantwortung für diese gewaltige Zahl von Flüchtlingen im Land auf geordnete Art und Weise zu teilen. Die Lösung besteht deshalb darin, der Türkei mit der Übernahme von Flüchtlingen in großzügigen Kontingenten zu helfen.
Sie haben bereits im September dafür den Begriff der „Koalition der Willigen“ erfunden und haben das Scheitern der damals von Merkel geplanten gesamteuropäischen Lösung vorhergesagt. Jetzt fordert auch die Kanzlerin Kontingent-Lösungen und spricht von einer Koalition der Willigen, wie in Ihrem Plan. Wie sehen Sie die Chancen, dass er umgesetzt wird?
Knaus: In den vergangenen Wochen sind sehr viele Dinge in dies Richtung passiert. Die niederländische EU-Präsidentschaft macht sich sehr stark für die Grundelemente unseres Plans. In Brüssel wird erkannt, dass man auf die Türkei mehr zugehen muss. Am Donnerstag wollen die Länder der Koalition der Willigen mit dem türkischen Ministerpräsidenten verhandeln, wie man die Umsiedlung von syrischen Flüchtlingen aus der Türkei beginnen kann. Griechenland hat beschlossen, die Türkei zu sicheren Drittstaat zu erklären, damit man Flüchtlinge wieder dorthin zurückschicken kann. Schritt für Schritt werden alle Punkte, die wir vorgeschlagen langsam umgesetzt. Das stimmt mich optimistisch, dass wir vielleicht in den nächsten Wochen einen Wendepunkt in der Flüchtlingskrise sehen.
Glauben Sie wirklich, dass sich dadurch die Menschen von einer Flucht nach Europa über abhalten lassen?
Knaus: Ja. Wenn Griechenland Insel für Insel beginnt, die ankommenden Flüchtlinge in die Türkei zurückzuschicken, dann werden die Menschen nicht mehr ihr Leben riskieren, weil die gefährliche Flucht über das Meer sinnlos wird. So rettet man Menschenleben und zerstört das Schmugglerwesen. Und man erhält zugleich geordnete Prozesse: Die Deutschen wären in der Lage, von jedem Flüchtling der aus der Türkei übernommen werden soll, die Fingerabdrücke zu überprüfen. Man wüsste, dass sind keine IS-Terroristen und könnte ganze Familien aufnehmen, damit sich auch die Frage des Familiennachzugs nicht mehr stellt. Das alles wird gerade zwischen Deutschland und der Türkei verhandelt. Die Umsetzung könnte in wenigen Wochen beginnen.
Wird es nicht dramatische Bilder geben, wie sie einst in Ungarn die Krise mitausgelöst haben, wenn Griechenland die Flüchtlinge in die Türkei zurückschaffen will?
Knaus: Zunächst einmal muss die Übernahme von Flüchtlingen aus der Türkei durch die Koalition der Willigen der allererste Schritt sein. Es ist nicht nur als Signal an die Türkei wichtig, dass es Deutschland und die anderen Länder tatsächlich ernst meinen. Das ist natürlich ein Signal an die syrischen Flüchtlinge, dass sie weiter die Chance auf Asyl haben. In Griechenland kann man leicht unterbinden, dass Flüchtlinge von Inseln wie Lesbos mit der Fähre auf das Festland übersetzen. Wenn man das klug organisiert, und nicht dilettantisch wie in Budapest, kann man vielleicht unschöne Bilder vermeiden. Aber letztlich ist die Rückführung unvermeidlich, wenn man die Grenze schützen will.
Warum soll die Türkei ausgerechnet die Flüchtlinge behalten wollen, die Europa nicht will?
Knaus: Viele kommen in die Türkei, weil sie die Bilder sehen, dass derzeit die einmalige Chance besteht mit relativ geringem Risiko nach Deutschland oder Schweden zu kommen. Das führt dazu, dass sich immer mehr Nordafrikaner und Menschen aus Zentralasien auf den Weg machen. Dieser Strom ist schlecht für die Türkei, weil dort die Kriminalität in Form von Menschenschmuggel wächst. Deshalb muss das Signal um die Welt gehen, dass die für jeden offene Autobahn nach Europa über die Ägäis geschlossen ist.
Wie verlässlich ist die Türkei? Das Land hat den Flüchtlingsstrom bislang an seinen Grenzen nicht aufgehalten…
Knaus: Die Vorstellung, die türkische Küstenwache oder die Armee könnte die gesamte hunderte Kilometer lange Ägäis-Küste abriegeln, war von Anfang an absurd. Da gibt es unzählige Inseln und Tourismusgebiete, da kann nicht das Militär aufmarschieren. Und wenn man Flüchtlinge erwischt und ein paar hundert Kilometer landeinwärts aussetzt, sind sie eine Woche später wieder an der Küste. Wer nur einen Tag vor Ort in der Türkei verbracht hat, kann bestätigen, dass die türkische Küstenwache hier eine Sisyphosarbeit verrichtet. Der Türkei ist es mit enormen Aufwand gelungen, die Landgrenze zu Griechenland zu schützen. An der Küste uns auf dem Meer geht das nicht.
Die osteuropäischen Länder wollen die Grenze von Mazedonien schließen, in der Hoffnung, dass die Flüchtlinge dann aufgeben, nach Griechenland zu fliehen.
Knaus: Es ist eine Illusion zu glauben, man könnte einen neuen eisernen Vorhang bauen mit Mazedonien als Vorposten in einer Reihe von Zäunen. Für jeden, der den Balkan kennt, ist das eine absurde Idee. Ich habe zehn Jahre auf dem Balkan gelebt und gearbeitet. Nirgendwo gibt es so viel Expertise im Schmuggeln. Glaubt jemand ernsthaft, ein paar unterbezahlte Polizisten könnten die Berge des Balkans kontrollieren? Ganz abgesehen davon, dass Europa Griechenland völlig im Stich lassen würde.
Viele fordern mehr Druck auf Griechenland, dass bisher seine Verpflichtungen kaum erfüllt …
Knaus: Der Plan der Umsiedlung von Flüchtlingen aus sogenannten „Hots-Spots“ in Griechenland, an dem die EU-Kommission seit Monaten festhält, funktioniert nicht und ist nur kontraproduktiv. Er animiert nur die Flüchtlinge ihr Geld Schleppern zu geben für eine lebensgefährliche Flucht über die Ägäis. Es ist besser diese Flüchtlinge aus der Türkei zu holen, wo sie ja in diesem Moment auch sind.
Aber große Teile der Bevölkerung der Aufnahmeländer wie Deutschland sehen die Belastungsgrenzen schon erreicht…
Knaus: Ich glaube, dass die Mehrheit in Deutschland und auch in anderen Ländern eine Unterscheidung macht und bereit ist, die Menschen aufzunehmen, die vom Syrienkrieg fliehen – der größten humanitären Katastrophe unserer Zeit. Die Bevölkerung hat aber gleichzeitig Angst, dass die offenen Grenzen ohne jede Kontrolle, dazu führen, dass eben sehr viele Menschen kommen, die nicht Flüchtlinge sind.
Viele halten Ihren Plan für Angela Merkels letzte Rettung. Glauben Sie, dass der Kanzlerin die Umsetzung gegen all die europäischen Widerstände gelingt?
Knaus: Wir haben unseren Vorschlag am Anfang „Merkel-Plan“ genannt, weil es letztlich nicht so wichtig ist, was ein Thinktank schreibt. Entscheidend ist, dass es Politiker gibt, die den Mut haben, richtige und weitsichtige Entscheidungen nicht nur gut zu heißen, sondern sie auch umzusetzen. Unsere Analyse war, dass dieser Plan als Lösung nur möglich ist, wenn ihn die deutsche Bundeskanzlerin in die Hände nimmt. Es geht hier um eine Koalition der Anständigen, die Europas Grundwerte gegen die Populisten verteidigt. Nach den Ergebnissen der vergangenen Wochen würde ich, wenn ich ein europäischer Politiker wäre, nicht mehr gegen Angela Merkel wetten.
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.