The EU-Turkey Deal: One Year Later

The EU Turkey Deal One Year Later

Last year saw an unprecedented increase in refugees, asylum seekers and migrants arriving on Greek soil, leading to the defensive closure of borders on the route up to northern Europe. This passageway afforded thousands the opportunity to reunite with family members and find safety and protection.  In the midst of this chaos, on March 18, 2015, the European Union and Turkey announced the EU-Turkey Statement.  The statement, often referred to as the EU-Turkey Deal, seemed to be the EU’s only solution to a variety of failed agreements amongst member states, including mandatory relocation schemes in order to alleviate the flow in Greece and also providing fast-track routes to protection.  These mechanisms were unsurprisingly rejected by a number of states.  Behind the facade of pro-active problem solving, the EU-Turkey Statement, had one objective in mind - to decrease and eventually halt the arrival of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants from Turkey to Europe. Claiming that this was not solely for the purpose of border control, but to offer “migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk.”  The deal has since been reinforced with a joint action plan, declarations that the deal was a success and the call from certain Member States to spread the model elsewhere.  What does the Statement really say and what does it really mean?

The Statement intended to “break the business model of the smugglers and to offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk” by deciding to “end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU.”  Accordingly, all migrants arriving irregularly into Greece as of March 20, 2015, would be returned to Turkey “in accordance with the relevant international standards” and protected “in accordance with EU and international law” as a “temporary and extraordinary measure necessary to end the human suffering and restore public order.”  Moreover, for every Syrian returned under the deal, another will be resettled from Turkey, and priority will be given to individuals who have not attempted the irregular crossing.  It follows that Turkey shall be assisted in the prevention of all irregular sea crossings, and that once the numbers of movements have been reduced, a Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme will be activated.  Poignantly, the Statement announced steps to implement a visa liberalization roadmap for Turkish citizens, the deployment of funds to implement humanitarian projects for migrants and refugees in Turkey, and to ‘re-energize’ the EU accession process for Turkey.  But re-energizing the accession process means de-centering the migrants’ experience from this policy in favor of a political incentive to Turkey, so that state cooperation in Europe’s objectives is secured.  

The contortion of international law, particularly Refugee Law, is undermined by the discursive precedence of territorial sovereignty through border control and the regulation of ‘Others’ who attempt to infiltrate such boundaries. In this case, the EU places its prerogative to decide who is allowed entry, or ‘deserves’ entry into a place of protection, over refugee and human rights law. Declaring that all returns will take place in respect of the principle of non-refoulement is then countered by the blanket statement that all Syrians arriving from March 20, 2015 will be returned in favor of those that have not attempted to migrate, despite evidence of push-backs into Syria by Turkish authorities. In asserting that this will be a “temporary and extraordinary measure”, one form of life, in this case that of the asylum seeker, is separated from society as that which must be feared, or a threat to the health of the society in an act of colonialism/racism in a bid to “restore public order.” The rights of migrants in the Eurocentric framing of the ‘migration crisis’, which appears in the first sentence of the statement, are suspended to exclude them from society and to invoke a racist discourse of ‘public order’ that only affects the rights of the hegemonically defined included body of citizens.

We rhetorically reduce all migrants to a single category or condition which universalizes differences and erases conditions of displacement.

Discursively constructing Syrian nationals with a ‘potential’ vulnerability that may be addressed by the EU’s policies,  we rhetorically reduce all migrants to a single category or condition which universalizes differences and erases conditions of displacement. Furthermore, we limit, in the name of security and ‘public order’, the much-needed debate on the current international legal order, including a human rights system which fails to address the ways in which the manipulation of law may lend political legitimacy to such arbitrary actions. As Judith Butler puts it, understanding the language used and its intended effect uncovers the conditions in which certain individual lives “cease to become eligible for basic, if not universal, human rights.” It allows us to see how the construction of a racialized migrant, asylum seeker, or refugee as an identity, as opposed to a human being, is the purpose of immigration control.  Such a framing of ‘public order’, including the use of the word crisis to refer to the situation in official policy, posits the movement of migrants as clearly illegitimate and the policies to rebuke their mobility in an extra-legal environment as the prerogative of those in power.

Once again, words and facts, intentions and outcomes, are at odds. But more importantly, this was to be expected from a political establishment that constantly seeks to undermine the rights and humanity of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers. Essentially, their commodification allows the EU and its implementing partners to represent the situation on their own terms, allowing the presentation of the deal’s outcome as a success, whilst completely erasing the horrific reality that such individuals face on a daily basis. One year on, the reality on the ground is that the deal has offered very little alternative to the individuals arriving in search of protection and has resulted in a policy of containment and deterrence, most recently published in a report by Medicines Sans Frontiers, that has increased their exposure to violence, instability and hardship.


Chiara Gnoli is a gender and migration specialist, currently working with refugees in Greece.