For months, leaders in Europe watched the crisis in Idlib unfold with routine condemnation and little action. European leaders were finally shaken from passivity on February 27, when Turkey announced that it would no longer stop refugees from crossing its borders into Europe, sparking a new wave of migration towards Europe. The action came hours after 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib and was seen as a move to pressure Europe for greater support while alleviating domestic pressures against Erdogan’s AKP party. Just three days later, on March 1st, the IOM estimated that 13,000 people were attempting to cross the border between Turkey and Greece by land and sea.
What has followed mirrors the 2015-2016 migration crisis, when more than 1 million refugees entered the European Union from Turkey. Greece and Bulgaria have responded by deploying police, army, and special forces to their borders. Border police began firing tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds behind barb wire fences, at times suffocating young children. Greek coast guards shot live rounds and maneuvered their boats to deliberately sink rubber boats full of terrified civilians. One of the first causalities on this new wave was a four-year old boy who, like Alan Kurdi before him, drowned under a capsized rubber boat in the Mediterranean. Another victim was Ahmad Abu Emad, a young Syrian from Aleppo allegedly killed by rubber bullets fired by Greek security forces. In one video on social media, his bloodied body is seen laying lifeless as other refugees try desperately to revive him.
The Greek border police is torturing, humiliating and violating the refugees who crossed the river to Greece.
The police tortured the civilians, took their clothes and sent them back to Turkey to suffer. pic.twitter.com/8hOxZYk1LV
— Asaad Hanna (@AsaadHannaa) March 6, 2020
On March 1st, the Greek government also announced that it would suspend asylum applications for all those crossing the Greek border irregularly for one month. In his announcement, Greek Prime Minster Mitsotakis claimed that his country was “invoking Article 78.3 of the TFEU to ensure full European support.” However, UNHCR quickly issued a statement rebuking Greece’s claim, stating: “neither the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees nor EU refugee law provides any legal basis for the suspension of the reception of asylum applications.” In another review, human rights lawyer Sangeetha Lengar notes that the “[TFEU] does not provide for any waiver of Article 78(1) of the same Treaty, which clearly binds member states to comply with the 1951 Refugee Convention.”
Rather than condemn Greece’s violent and unlawful response, European leaders have come out in support of the Greek government. On March 3, European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, publicly thanked Greece for “being an aspida in these time”, using the Greek word for ‘shield’. Leyen implies that Greece must shield Europe—not from the authoritarian government which has systematically killed, tortured, and detained hundreds of thousands—but from victims themselves seeking secure and dignified lives. On the same day, Leyen and other European chiefs pledged €700 million to support Greece’s response. No comparable support was previously made to support the unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Syria.
These new events have exposed the utter failure of European leaders to reform the E.U.’s broken asylum system, most notably the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that asylum seeks must register for asylum in the first E.U. state they enter. Rather than reform its system now in shatters, Europe instead doubled down on its current policy by calling for Ankara to respect the 2016 EU-Turkey Agreement. Under the 2016 agreement, all new migrants to the Greek islands were to be returned to Turkey, with the expectation that for every Syrian returned another would be resettled in the E.U. In return, Turkey was to receive €6 billion by 2018 to support refugees inside Turkey. Human rights groups have overwhelmingly condemned the deal as unlawful. In a statement from 2016, Human Rights Watch argued that the deal breaches international laws and norms by facilitating collective expulsions without giving necessary consideration for individual asylum claims and by conditioning refugee resettlement on the forced return of asylum seekers.
Turkey, for its part, claims that the full amount promised by Europe has yet to materialize, while only 27,000 refugees have been resettled. Ankara also claims that it has spent €6 billion of its own money hosting some 4 million refugees—the largest refugee population in the world. Meanwhile, a recession and growing domestic backlash against Turkey’s engagement in the Syrian conflict has inflamed anti-refugee sentiments and led Ankara to adopt policies that have severely degraded conditions for refugees inside Turkey. In 2019, the government implemented a crackdown which resulted in mass displacement of refugees across provinces Turkish provinces, and the deportation of hundreds of Syrians into active conflict zones in Syria. Following last month’s killing of 34 Turkish soldiers inside Syria, hundreds of Turkish nationalists across Turkey’s Konya province attacked the homes and workplaces of refugees, killing one Syrian. These developments undercut the fundamental assertion of the 2016 deal–that Turkey meets the EU criteria for a safe third country to which an asylum seeker can be returned.
Individuals have a right to seek asylum under the Refugee Convention and Protocol as well as the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. To uphold these fundamental rights and values, both Turkey and Europe must take substantive step to ensure that Syrians at their borders receive the access and protections afforded to them under international law. For Europe, this will require a major overhaul of its asylum system in a humane way, one that allows for equable burden sharing among states, and dignified conditions for all asylum seekers. Anything short of this will guarantee continuous cycles of violence, chaos, and suffering–and the continual decline of Europe’s vaulted norms and values.