Can Europe Make It?

What can we expect from the EU-Turkey deal over the lives of Syrian refugees?

EU and international organisations welcome the Turkish Government’s policy changes to curb the number of refugees entering Europe. But if this will work remains to be seen.

Elif Mendos Kuşkonmaz
15 February 2016
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A Syrian refugee carries a baby over the border fence into Turkey. Lefteris Pitarakis/PA Images. All rights reserved.In November 2015, four years after the first group of Syrian people fled to Turkey, the EU-Turkey summit on the Syrian refugee crisis took place in Brussels. At the outcome of this summit, the EU and Turkey reached a deal that contained concessions for both sides. Turkey agreed to patrol the EU`s southern border of Greece, keeping Syrian refugees within Turkish borders, and accepting the return of Syrians not in need of international protection.

In return, the EU mainly agreed on three issues: an initial 3 billion euros of financial support for Turkey, a possible bid for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the EU Schengen area, and a re-energized accession process for Turkey. Regarding the first point, it should be noted that Turkey hosts 2.5 million Syrian refugees as of December 2015 and claims to have spent about 8.5 billion US dollars since 2011. The deal points out the EU’s commitment to share this financial burden by providing 3 billion euros. According to the Commission decision on establishing the funding, that money will be used to assist Turkey in addressing Syrian refugees’ needs.

The second agreement builds on the visa liberalisation dialogue with Turkey, which was initially launched in December 2013 as part of the EU-Turkey readmission agreement. The deal further states October 2016 as the expected date for the abolition of visas for Turkish citizens within the Schengen area. As the deal points out, that depends on whether Turkey fulfils the requirements set out by the EU.

As for the accession process for Turkey, the deal has opened a new chapter in the negotiation talks. Turkey has been a candidate country since 1999 and negotiating for accession since 2005. 14 out of 35 chapters have been opened so far and only one of these was closed. Negotiations on opening the other remaining 20 chapters might happen over future years, but the deal explicitly states that it will be without prejudice to the position of Member States. Protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms is an issue to be discussed under one of the remaining chapters and as is pointed out in the Commission’s progress report of 2015, Turkey has to implement major reforms in this area in order to join the Union.

Following the summit, the Turkish government started to fulfil its end of the deal by some moves to assist Syrian refugees in Turkey. First came the Turkish police raid on a workshop where fake life jackets were manufactured. Those life jackets were made of materials that did not meet the safety standards and therefore it was likely that they would not keep potential victims afloat. A vast majority of refugees choose to flee to Europe by crossing the Aegean from Turkey to Greece. According to the International Organisation for Migration, only in January 2016 more than 300 people died or were reported missing in this dangerous journey. Many refugees buy life jackets to survive this journey, but they buy counterfeit ones which cost only up to £10, while real life jackets cost up to £100.

As a second action, the Turkish government introduced a regulation in January 2016 that eases the procedure for obtaining work permits for Syrian refugees in Turkey. To this day, most Syrians have to work illegally for wages far below those of their Turkish counterparts because they could not obtain work permits. According to the new regulation, Syrian refugees will be able to apply for work permit six months after they receive their temporary identity cards. Self-employed workers will also benefit from this regulation. But work permits will only allow Syrian refugees to work in the provinces where they reside, and the number of Syrians in a given workplace will be limited to 10% of the total staff.

Although the EU and international organisations are welcoming the Turkish government’s policy change to curb the number of refugees entering Europe, it is an open question whether or not this will in fact open a new chapter for Syrian refugees. Firstly, the government acted against human smuggling very late. As was documented in the Guardian in November 2015, the human smuggling happens in plain sight in the Turkish coastal towns that neighbour Greece. Despite this grim reality, it was only after sealing the deal with the EU that the Turkish authorities started to take action and their belated move has cost many lives.

Secondly, granting work permits for Syrian refugees is not enough to halt their exploitation in the Turkish labour market. As the director of the International Labour Organization’s Turkey office, Numan Özcan, pointed out “It would be unrealistic to think of work permits for Syrian refugees as a magical wand that will solve all problems”. The legislation limits the work permits to the cities in which Syrians first registered, not taking into account the cities they wish to reside in or work.

Also, if job opportunities are limited in those cities, unemployed Syrians will continue to seek work in exploitative conditions. The number of unemployed in Turkey is 10.1%, which is above the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 7%. This high unemployment rate suggests that Syrians who have the means to start their own business might benefit better from the regulation, whilst the rest will continue to face with difficulties in finding jobs.

The 10% threshold for an employer’s total staff might mean that if the employer exceeds this quota, Syrians will continue to be employed as undocumented. It is also unclear how this new regulation might overcome the problem of Syrian child labour, which according to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre’s report of February 2016 is widely prevalent. Against this background, it is too early to say that this new regulation will solve Syrian refugees’ employment problems.

Lastly the mounting reports written by various NGOs over the past few years on Turkey’s authoritarian drift must alert us to putting Syrian refugees at risk of serious human rights abuses. As a paradigmatic example, in September 2015 Amnesty International reported that Turkish authorities were keeping refugees in a camp against their will unless they agreed to return to Syria or Iraq. These reports, together with recent incidents of arbitrary detention of refugees indicate that the implementation of stricter border controls in Turkey will pave the way for yet more human rights violations.

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