TSG IntelBrief: The European Union’s Refugee Quandary
April 29, 2016

The European Union’s Refugee Quandary

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Amid surging levels of violence in Syria, the EU-Turkey migrant deal faces a key deadline on May 4, when Turkey is required to have met all 72 conditions set forth by the EU for visa liberalization

• Less than a week from the deadline, Turkey has reportedly met only half of the conditions required for visa-free travel—a stipulation of the deal Turkey says is non-negotiable—raising significant questions as to how EU leaders will proceed

• The dilemma drawn from the impending deadline underscores a much larger problem for EU and global leaders as it relates to both migrants and the broader conflict in Syria

• Stopgap measures designed only to address immediate political priorities will inevitably lead to larger problems down the road.

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As the Syrian ceasefire continues to crumble, the durability of the controversial EU-Turkey migration deal struck in March faces a significant test next week. On May 4, the European Commission will issue a report regarding the extent to which Turkey has met the 72 conditions required for visa liberalization for Turkish citizens traveling in the EU’s Schengen zone. Under the terms of the deal, visa liberalization is to take effect by the end of June. The 72 conditions set forth by the European Commission primarily center around civil liberties and human rights guarantees—issues on which Turkey has an increasingly poor record. Turkish leaders, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have repeatedly stated that visa-free EU travel for Turkish citizens is a non-negotiable provision of the deal—the success of which is a political necessity for EU policymakers.

Among other provisions, the agreement—which took effect March 20—seeks to reduce the unchecked influx of Syrian refugees to Europe by returning all ‘irregular’ migrants that land in Greece back to Turkey. For each Syrian returned to Turkey, the EU will resettle to Europe one Syrian asylum seeker currently in Turkey—with the aim of deterring individuals from attempting to illegally enter the EU. Despite initial questions as to the logistical feasibility of the deal—and more significant questions regarding its legality—EU officials have already publicly declared that the deal has been effective in reducing the flow of migrants to Europe.

If, however, Turkey fails to meet the 72 conditions by the May 4 deadline, EU leaders will face a considerable dilemma. They will be forced to decide whether to move forward with extending visa liberalization to Turkey despite its failure to meet the predetermined criteria—setting the dangerous precedent of pushing aside core democratic principles and undermining European credibility, or deny Turkey visa-free status, and thus running the very real risk of bringing about the collapse of the migrant deal.

The predicament facing EU policymakers comes at a time when violence in Syria is skyrocketing. On April 28, as forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad continued preparations for an assault on rebel-held Aleppo, government airstrikes reportedly killed as many as 60 people in a 24-hour period, including a strike against a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders that killed at least 27. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the fighting in Aleppo has killed around 200 people this week alone. As it becomes increasingly unlikely that UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva will resume, and with summer around the corner, the resumption of full-scale violence is almost certain to result in a renewed wave of desperate Syrian refugees braving the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. The convergence of these factors means that any obstacles to the continued implementation of the EU-Turkey deal would likely have disastrous political consequences for EU policymakers.

Despite being downplayed by officials on both sides, the current quandary presented by the impending May 4 deadline demonstrates the downfalls of shortsighted strategies for dealing with the crisis. European policymakers have designed a system to effectively outsource the challenges posed by asylum seekers to Turkey. Now, with the possibility of the deal’s collapse, EU leaders will have to choose between weakening long-held liberalization requirements—which, in turn, could have an adverse effect on security—or find themselves back at square one in the refugee crisis. 

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