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Turkey, Greece and the EU: A Border Tug-of-War Lacking Policy Direction

Resolution of the current Turkish-Greek border


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Anisa Abeytia

3 years ago | 6 min read

During the last weeks of June 2015, I was the only person on the ground in Belgrade, Serbia interviewing refugees. Over the course of that sixteen-day trip the steady trickle of asylum seekers slowly increased until the parks between the bus, and train stations were filled and overflowing. This was the run up to what was eventually called the “refugee crisis,” and it did not need to happen.

The 2015 refugee flow highlighted the coordination dilemma between European countries and their disharmonized asylum policies. The refugee flow exposed several fractures in policy compliance between the European Union (EU) and other European countries. The massive population flow presented several domestic and supranational policy challenges and engendered new tensions, and aggravated preexisting ones. The EU and European countries grappled with how to respond to the crisis and share the responsibility of resettling refugees from Frontline countries and became an Achilles heel that allowed chaos to ensue.

Europe, the United States and Canada refused to open their borders. Canadian President, Justin Trudeau, was forced to provide asylum to Syrian refugees after Canada’s rejection of Alan Kurdi’s family asylum application, resulting in the toddler’s subsequent death in the Mediterranean Sea. In Europe, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, appealed directly to the German public telling them, “we can do this.” A petition directed at American President, Barak Obama, demanded the admission of refugees, which began the fast-tracking of asylum applications that previously sat waiting for years. Then they closed the borders and Europe paid Turkey handsomely to keep them shut.

The world continued to ignore the growing humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. In 2018 Syria ranked first on the UN poverty index and in 2019, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), 83% of Syrians lived in poverty while 70% lived in extreme poverty. The international community collectively hoped the problem would resolve itself or that someone else would solve the problem for them, and they hoped that someone would be Turkish President Recep Erdoğan.

The recent opening of the Turkish border to Europe created a dangerous situation for refugees attempting to reach Europe. Already the death toll is mounting, Greek soldiers patrol the border and sea with live ammunition and Greece announced a month-long moratorium on asylum applications, marking the EU’s continued inability to enforce asylum law.

Erdoğan’s “Open Door” policy is a provocation, a means to elicit a European response by lobbing refugees at the EU’s front door like World War Two era kamikaze pilots, but it will not force open the EU’s gates.

The situation on the Turkish-Greek border today is quite different from 2015. The stories emerging now are unlike the stories I recorded in the summer of 2015 when there was a worldwide outpouring of sympathy for asylum seekers. There is no expression of sympathy today. The Refugee Welcome movement was met with an equally forceful populist movement that often turns to violence in rejecting refugees. Right leaning and openly racists politicians were elected throughout Europe, including countries that host few refugees, as is the case in Hungary and Poland. A backlash against Muslim refugees as “invaders” is fueling these hardline reactions. Erdoğan is relying on Europe’s historic animosity towards Muslims and the growing Islamophobic populous movements. He is banking on it because the only thing Europe desires less than military involvement in Syria against Bashar Al Assad, is an increase in Muslim refugees.

Turkey’s Open Door policy is not the sole cause of the violence occurring on the Turkish-Greek border; the long-standing economic realities in the developing world that created economic refugees, inaction in Syria and the consequence of years of drafting negligent policy focused on border security also contributed. Since 2015 these policy initiatives failed to address the causes of large refugee flows and Europe again is faced with a mounting crisis.

Erdoğan’s “Open Door” policy is a provocation, a means to elicit a European response by lobbing refugees at the EU’s front door like World War Two era kamikaze pilots, but it will not force open the EU’s gates. Fortress Europe will remain closed. However, it just might coerce or shame the EU into supporting NATO’s involvement in Turkey’s military operation in Northern Syria. Perhaps that is Erdoğan’s goal, ending the war in Syria.

The concept of a “Fortress Europe” is not new. Its roots can be found in Spain’s Reconquista and Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are historic prejudices engraved in Europe’s past and it is a wicked problem the EU acknowledges. Notions of racial and religious superiority continues and lends credence to Europe’s right to maintain border security at any cost. As European countries vigorously assert their rights, asylum seekers are continually denied the right to apply for asylum in Europe. So called “economic migrants” are altogether excluded from consideration under asylum law.

As a world community we are treating Syrians as badly as Assad. Insulted for leaving and accused of being terrorists if they stay; Syrians are offered few options other than death; so Turkey opened the border.

Economic migrants are the legacy of centuries of exploitative and predatory European economic practices that continue to decimate the markets of sending countries, forcing economic migrants to seek opportunities in Europe; they should be entitled to asylum. Yet, the EU continues to draft laws to prevent both asylum seekers and economic migrants from entering Europe. Europeans have a long history of drafting laws that disenfranchise non-European populations, placing them at a disadvantage in every aspect of life.

The victims of Western and Russian aggression, “economic migrants” and Syrians make up the convoys in the latest refugee flow, but Syrians are not the majority. The hemorrhaging caused by the Syrian war only added to a world already bleeding and anemic. It exposed the gross inequities in the application of international law and a thread bare democratic system.

In the wake of the massive destruction caused by two world wars, mankind, under the auspice of a newly minted United Nations, agreed to draft a charter to ensure basic rights to all of humanity. It was the expansion of democratic ideals on a global scale. However, traditionally democracy was not inclusive, even when it was resuscitated by the American Revolution it continued to be the privilege of white, landholding males. The rehabilitation of democracy to be truly inclusive is a recent endeavor, an experiment that is struggling to continue and is under siege by populous movements and far-right extremists. Inclusion, representation and the rule of law became the hallmarks of this new democratic system. Yet, with few exceptions, asylum seekers and “economic migrants” continue to be excluded.

When I was in Belgrade an older Serbian man walked up to me with tears in his eyes and said, “bravo, bravo, thank you for documenting this. It’s shameful we are allowing this to happen. Shameful. How could we let this happen?” As he stood there looking out at the make-shift refugee camp, he shook his head, not only witnessing the failure of international law, but the dying of democratic ideals.

As a world community we are treating Syrians as badly as Assad. Insulted for leaving and accused of being terrorists if they stay; Syrians are offered few options other than death; so Turkey opened the border. The EU wants is shut again, but Turkey refused the latest EU monetary enticement to close the borders. Erdoğan will remain in a border tug-of-war with Europe. Despite the risk of death, refugees from around the world will continue to seek refuge in Europe. It was inevitable. It is shameful.

The EU’s pledge of 700 million Euros to aid Greek border militarization is a temporary solution. The EU cannot block refugees forever, nor can Greece be allowed to shoot or drown asylum seekers. Erdoğan will continue to hold the door open until the EU and NATO support Turkey’s military operation in Northern Syria or enforces a no-fly zone. A continued policy of inaction and American-style isolationism will not stop the Turkish volley of refugees, nor will escalating the violence against refugees and humanitarian workers. European countries and the EU need to work collectively to provide long-term solutions uncoupled to security issues and begin to address the broader concerns that underline the causes of large refugee flows. Together they can do it. How Europe responds to the escalation of violence in Syria and on the Turkish-Greek border will determine the future of law and democracy in Europe.

This article was originally published by Anisa abeytia on medium.

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