ISTANBUL – The signing of the EU-Turkish refugee agreement celebrated its first anniversary on Sunday amid Ankara’s constant complaints of non-compliance by the European part, to the point that high-ranking Turkish political leaders have menaced with unilaterally scuttling the deal.
At the time the EU-TK agreement came into effect on March 20, 2016, the average number of refugees disembarking on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Kastellorizo ranged between 1,000-3,000 arrivals per month; a far cry from the 57,000 illegal arrivals in February 2016 or the 211,000 of November 2015.
The agreement foresaw that Turkey would accept the return of these illegal arrivals to the islands; however, these deportations, during this first year, have shown to be more of a menace than a reality.
Although the arrivals in the past year totaled nearly 25,000 people, only 916 have been successfully returned to Turkey.
Both EU and Turkish estimates agree on this point.
According to Turkish Foreign Affairs sources contacted by EFE, “Apart from the agreement, the increased role of Turkish land and sea patrols has played an important role in reducing illegal crossings.”
Turkey also points out that the “Turkish visa review,” in force since January 2017, is being applied to Syrian refugees traveling to Turkey from third countries.
This measure barred the influx of thousands of refugees that every week traveled from Lebanon to Southern Turkey by ferry to later make their way to the Aegean coast to attempt the dangerous sea crossing to the Greek islands.
However, the Syrians are only the second largest refugee contingent, a far second to Pakistan. Followed by Algerians, Afghans, Bangladeshis, Iranians, Moroccans and Iraqis, the list goes on to include a total of 24 nationalities.
“Further to this agreement, there is also a bilateral protocol signed with Greece, by means of which, Turkey re-admitted last year some 2,000 illegal refugees,” according to the Turkish sources.
The Brussels agreement was marketed under the slogan “One for One,” by which the EU committed itself to re-settle in the EU territory one Syrian refugee for each deportation to Turkey.
But in reality, this program is running ahead of schedule as 3,294 Syrians have now been legally resettled in Europe under its guidelines, according to these same sources.
However, Turkey is currently very unhappy with the agreement as the “EU package” included a 3-billion-euro financial deal to assist the refugees and also the agreement that Turkish nationals could travel to the EU without a visa.
The negotiation regarding the EU visa waiver program has been dead in the water since May 2016, when the European Parliament declared it would veto the bill until Turkey modified its antiterrorist legislation, as previously agreed, an issue that Ankara now flatly denies.
On the financial side, the EU transfer of funds is slower than the Turks had hoped for.
Of the 3 billion euros promised, 777 million euros have been handed over to Turkey, although the EU has already dispatched an additional 1.5 billion euros to finance a total of 39 humanitarian relief operations underway in Turkey.
“The sum assigned to spend on humanitarian and non-humanitarian refugee assistance in Turkey totals 2.2 billion euros,” a communique of the European Commission stated.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also complained that this money is not exclusively earmarked for specific humanitarian projects but to offset part of the massive expense incurred by Ankara on solving its own domestic Syrian refugee crisis in the past six years.
Based on this Turkish discontent, Erdogan has menaced the EU with “opening its borders” to the refugees in Turkey or even “bus them” to either the Greek or Bulgarian border.
On the other hand, Humanitarian NGOs have denounced the agreement hardly benefits the refugees, although it was contributed to lower the number of refugees drowning attempting to cross the Aegean sea.
According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the refugees are “resorting to more dangerous routes to Europe used by human traffickers or risk the overcrowding in the Greek islands.”
On the five Greek island covered by the agreement, there are over 13,000 refugees awaiting news on their fate – that is twice the capacity the existing facilities can handle, according to Human Rights Watch.
If Turkey decides to go beyond its menaces and denounce the EU agreement, a dramatic new wave of refugee arrivals could put the EU against the ropes.