Migration policy in Turkey: Bouncer at the Bosphorus

The readmission agreement between the EU and Turkey is the most commonly known of its kind. Migration is a point of controversy for both sides.

Nizip refugee camp near the border between Turkey and Syria Foto: reuters

The agreement regarding the refugees signed between the EU and Turkey was widely publicized and generically criticized in the last year. However, the negotiations for the deal commenced in late 2009 and was actually signed on December 16th, 2013. After the Turkish Parliament ratified the agreement, the deal became valid on the 1st of October, 2014.

It was intended that after a three year provision period, in October 2017, visa-free travel for Turkish citizens would be granted to Turkey in return for the readmission of transit refugees that traveled from third countries to Europe through Turkey. In the face of mounting pressure, due to the dramatic increase in the number of people fleeing to Europe, on 18th of March 2016, EU and Turkey agreed on the exact terms of this agreement. On the 20th of May, it was announced that the agreement would come into full effect from the 1st of June 2016.

According to the agreement, the migrants that traveled to Europe from Turkey, whose asylum applications have been denied by Europe, would be returned first to Turkey, and then to the respective third country. In return, EU agreed to take up to 72,000 Syrians from Turkey and redistribute them in Europe, open new chapters in the accession and provide an initial financial aid of 3 billion Euros, along with visa free travel for Turkish citizens.

Turkey, in order to be granted visa free travel for its citizens, promised to fulfill 72 benchmarks including the improvement of border security and cooperation with Frontex, building acceptance, language and detention centers, a stronger effort to fight human trafficking and establish bilateral readmission agreements in order to send back refugees to their original source. Shortly after the deal came into effect, the EU minister of Turkey at the time, Volkan Bozkir, said on that Turkey was expecting visa free travel by October or November this year, if not, they had the option to abort the deal unilaterally.

The EU- Turkey deal suggests that through the use of other bilateral readmission agreements, the refugees from Europe are firstly to be sent to Turkey, and afterwards, to their respective countries of origin. Among the countries in Europe, Turkey has bilateral readmission agreements with Greece(2002), Romania(2004) Ukraine (2005), Bosnia Herzegovina (2012) Moldova (2012) Belarus (2013) and Montenegro (2013)

Outside of Europe, Turkey has readmission agreements with Syria (2001), Kyrgyzstan (2003), Pakistan (2010), Russia (2011), Nigeria (2011), and Yemen (2011) Due to the non-refoulement principle dating back to the 1951 Geneva Convention, Turkey isn’t legally allowed to send back Syrians back to Syria. However, Turkey has sent many to Syria, under 'voluntary returns.’

According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Turkey’s readmission agreements with Nigeria, Yemen and Pakistan were not ratified and made use of in the past. On the 7th of April 2016, shortly after the EU-Turkey agreement has been signed, the Turkish Parliament ratified the readmission agreement with Pakistan. Thus, the way for readmitting the Pakistanis, who are seen as “economic migrants“ by Europe has been opened.

Citizens of countries which Turkey has functioning bilateral readmission agreements with will be deported to their respective countries immediately. However, it looks like Turkey will host these people in detention centers for an indefinite amount of time. The Turkish government makes no comment on where and under which conditions these people are kept, there are a huge number of cases regarding human rights law violations and what is expecting them, while on the other hand, mentioning the visa-free travel promise constantly. According to the data provided by the Migration Office onwards from the 4th of April, 721 migrants who managed to reach Greece from Turkey are sent back as part of the EU-Turkey agreement so far. The biggest group of these people are from Pakistan(354) followed by Syria(82), Afghanistan(72) and Algeria (68).

On the other hand, Turkey’s readmission agreement with Greece has been in use before the EU-Turkey deal and deportations from the former have been ongoing. Some deportations take place as part of this deal, and not the EU-Turkey deal. So far, 1,139 people have been returned from Greece to Turkey as part of the Turkey-Greece deal. However, all of the returns so far were either voluntary or involuntary based on one of three grounds: the person did not apply for asylum, withdrew their asylum application after a negative decision on their first hearing, or was rejected after an examination on the merits. In return, according to Turkish authorities, 2.330 Syrians have been relocated in Europe, with Germany (937) taking the lead in terms of numbers. According to the European Commission, as of the end of September, 1,614 Syrians had been resettled from Turkey to EU countries under the 1:1 framework.

Cooperation with Frontex

The government claims in public statements also against the EU and the federal government that 2.774.475 Syrian refugees and another 400,000 refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan are in Turkey as of 17th of November 2016. How they determine these figures is not transparent. Among them, 256.295 of them are housed in camps/centers and the rest live in cities. Many observers also questioned these figures because the Turkish statistics does not seem to take into account those who had moved to Europe. In 2015 and 2016, Frontex presented monthly figures on the illegal migration from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands. On some days, up to 2000 migrants took the trip across to Greece from Turkey’s western coasts. Since the establishment of the refugee agreement in March 2016, the numbers have fallen below 50 per day.

There has been a long-term cooperation in the field of intelligence and police between EU countries and Turkey as part of NATO membership and the EU accession process. Turkey has signed an agreement to cooperate with Frontex, on 28th May 2012. The purpose of this agreement was that Turkey and Frontex will exchange relevant experience and practice in the field of border control and strategic information. Frontex, in cooperation with the Turkish authorities, aimed to develop joint projects in order to enhance the collective capacity to “fight against illegal/irregular migration“.

The deal also wanted to explore the possibilities to develop coordinated joint return activities in the Aegean sea. Apart from Frontex, NATO ships are present in the Aegean to assistance and surveillance. When the flow of migration from Turkey to Greece was at its peak in October 2015, Germany voiced their concerns over Turkey and FRONTEX weren’t cooperating enough. The same month, FRONTEX Director Fabrice Leggeri announced that FRONTEX was appointing a representative to Ankara.

It was the first time a FRONTEX representative was appointed to a non-EU country. Both parties saw this as a strengthening of cooperation, Leggeri said they were working on a new legislation that would enable FRONTEX to run operations in Turkish waters. However, due to the ratification process in the European Council and the European Parliament, Leggeri stated that this could take up to 2-3 years. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on March 10, 2016 that the alliance had agreed with Turkey on Feb. 11 to intensify and increase surveillance of the border between Turkey and Syria in order to protect its member Turkey from possible threats from neighboring Syria.

Border control

The agreement that was reached between EU and Turkey required that the borders were to be protected better, and that the human traffickers be more severely punished. In terms of crossing by sea, data from the Turkish coast guards suggests that there was a dramatic decrease in numbers of attempts to enter Europe after the deal was implemented in March 2016. Consequently, the number of people reaching from Turkey to Greece dropped as well, due to the increased efforts of the Turkish coast guard, along with cooperation with NATO and Frontex on the Aegean sea. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), just over 171,000 have crossed to Greece so far in 2016, much lower than the comparable figure for 2015 of almost 740,000.

According to UNHCR between 1 January and 10 December 2015, more than 792,000 people had arrived to Greece irregularly by sea; the arrivals in the first 10 months of the year representing 1,300% more than during the same period in 2014. In October 2015 alone, and despite dangerous sea conditions, more than 150,000 people travelled from Turkey to Greece (compared to 8,500 in October 2014). Syrians made up the majority of arrivals. While the number of migrants attempting to cross the Aegean Sea slowed down, thousands have continued to cross the much more dangerous Mediterranean route from Libya, making 2016 the deadliest year for migrants on record.

One of the 72 benchmarks in the EU agreement was that Turkey was to “make access to Turkey more difficult for citizens of countries representing important sources of illegal migration for the EU.“ After repeated warnings from the U.S and EU for Turkey to seal off its border with Syria, Turkey started building a wall along the entire border (an Israeli model along the West Bank). Of the 911 km border, 200 km are already finished from Hatay to Kilis. The other 700 km are expected to be built in the next five months. The wall is estimated to cost around 2 billion Euros, made up of seven-tonne portable blocks topped with razor wire, the wall will be three meters high and two meters wide. It is expected to be supplemented with electronic surveillance systems, barbed wire, self-shooting border installations and drones; private companies are to be hired once construction tenders are completed.

Migrants who want to go to Europe via Turkey either take the sea route in the Aegean Sea to one of the Greek islands, some which are very close to the Turkish coast, or across the Meric border river or across a 20 km wide strip. There, however, the Greek authorities have already built a first border fence some years ago. FRONTEX also operates along the land borders and are authorised to act in the name of the Greek army. North of Greece is the Bulgarian border. Bulgaria has also begun to build fences, strengthened its border controls massively and even patrol right-wing militias. These militias are known to push-back migrants to the other side of the border. There are accounts of those who are stranded between these two countries and some who eventually die out of starvation. In the meantime, these closely supervised transit routes are supplemented by either longer ship journeys across the Black Sea to Bulgaria or Romania and even by passage with larger ships from the Mediterranean coast to Italy.

Detention policy

According to the official records of the Migration Office in Turkey, there are currently 19 Removal Centers in 17 cities, with a total capacity of 6.810. They are almost up to full capacity, and although the exact numbers of the people under detainment is not available due to a lack of transparency. There are Removal centers like the one in Kumkapi, Istanbul, that has been working at overcapacity. Kumkapı “Removal Center“, is one of the oldest deportation centers in Turkey. On November 19th 2016, 123 migrants managed to escape the Kumkapı deportation center in Istanbul, after starting a fire in their cells. While the fire brigades were working to extinguish the fire, the migrants broke through the gate of the courtyard and runaway despite the policemen shooting in the air. The police forces brought 20 of them back while searching the neighborhood.The European Court of Human rights ruled, in 2014, that there had been violations of people’s freedom and security, right to efficient application and ban of torture and ill treatment.

As an obligation due to the agreement between Turkey and Europe, new centers are under construction, additional centers in 5 cities with a combined capacity of 7.600 are planned to be in operation in 2016. Apart from these, 8 more Removal Centers across Turkey with a total capacity of 2.720 are set to be opened in 2017. In total, by 2017, the total capacity of Removal Centers that are run by the Migration Office is expected to be 17.130.

The number of migrant in prisons and deportation centers in Turkey tends to increase particularly after the EU-Turkey deal, which requires Turkey to implement all means to prevent irregular migration to Europe. As of today, there is an unknown number of migrants imprisoned in the deportation centers constructed in the cities of Adana, Antalya, Aydın, Bursa, Çanakkale, Edirne, Erzurum, Gaziantep, Hatay, İstanbul, İzmir, Kayseri, Kocaeli, Kırklareli, Mugla, Tekirdağ and Van, with a capacity of 14.410 people (according to the official numbers of Directorate General of Migration Management). The migrants detained in these centers are under constant risk of deportation.

According to media reports and reports by Amnesty International, Turkey is deporting refugees to Syria, Iraq and Iran. There have been many occasions where the refugees in the detention centers are forced to sign papers which they do not understand fully, and consequently forcfully returned to Syria. On more than one occasion, refugees from the Askale Detention Center in Erzurum have been deported back to Syria, through the Cilvegözü border in Reyhanli, Hatay.

Besides the Amnesty reports, interviews with Syrians who were deported, it was reported that the 29th of November, over 80 Syrians, including 9 women and 3 children, were transported from Erzurum to Hatay and dropped in the Syrian border. Since there is no Syrian government on the other side of the border, radical islamist militia group Ahrar Al-Sham, who is in charge of the region apparently asked the detainees, their ethnicity. Apart from three Christians, the rest of the people were smuggled back into Turkey the next day. The Migration Office and Turkish Red Crescent claims that all 'voluntary’ returns to Syria are granted under the provision of UNHCR, but UNHCR has denied this claim and deemed it “impossible.“

Financial aid

After the summit that was held between Turkey and EU on 29th of November 2015, Europe announced that it promised to provide a funding worth 3 billion Euros until the end of 2017. In March of the following year, Europe agreed that if this initial 3 billion Euros would not be enough, an additional 3 billion Euros would be provided until the end of 2018. It was agreed that this sum would be used in addressing the needs of Syrians in the areas of health, education, infrastructure and food. On September of 2016, EU Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Commissioner Christos Stylianides said that out of the 3 billion in question, 652 million Euros have been released so far and that “this is the largest humanitarian program EU has ever financed.“ The Turkish government, who criticized Europe for the slow and indirect dispension of the funds, stated that this number was inaccurate and that the real number was in fact 181 million.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly lashed out at Europe, claiming that Turkey had spent nearly 10 billion Euros in aids for Syrians already, climbing it up from 6 billion in an earlier comment, to eventually 13 billion Euros. According to UNHCR, the total humanitarian funding provided by the EU to Turkey in response to the Syria Crisis since the beginning of the crisis, amounts to €583 million by September 2016. However, in October of this year, Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission wrote a letter where he said that the number that was released so far was 652, and 467 million Euros of this was spent. The letter also said that this was the partial sum of 1,252 billion Euros, which has been agreed for a total of 34 concrete projects.

In 2009, the Turkish government set up the „AFAD“ state disaster control agency, which is now responsible for the refugee camps and other refugee services. AFAD expects support from the EU, in construction of schools, medical care for the refugees and help for refugees who are on the Syrian side of the border. One of the projects that have started recently is a money card which every registered refugee receives. The card is loaded with about 100 liras a month, which the person use to get food supply. The project takes place in cooperation with the Turkish Red Crescent. The refugees registered by the Turkish government receive an identity card with which they are treated free of charge in hospitals. According to AFAD Chief Fuat Oktay, the enormous cost for the Turkish health insurance company is causing the city's population to deteriorate in the cities where a large number of Syrian refugees live. Turkey now allows Syrian doctors to treat their countrymen.

Visa-free travel

Right after the EU agreement was implemented, Turkey put up an effort to complete all of the benchmarks for obtaining visa-free entry into the EU. In order for Turkish citizens to get visa free travel as part of the EU agreement, 7 benchmarks still remain out of 72. Among these are the conclusion and implementation of an Operational Cooperation Agreement with EUROPOL, the adoption and implementation of legislation on the protection of personal data in line with the EU standards, the distribution of EU compatible biometric passports for Turkish citizens, implementing the National Strategy and the Action Plan on the Fight against Corruption and the recommendations of the Council of Europe Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) and most importantly, the revision of Turkey’s legislation and practices on terrorism in line with European standards, better aligning the definition of terrorism in order to narrow the scope. Among these, the benchmark the Turkish government criticizes the most are its anti-terror laws and their implementation.

Turkey has faced some serious criticism since the coup attempt in July because of the massive purge and detainments. Turkey does not wish to compromise on this, feels righteous in defending itself and its policies, accusing Europe of being hypocritical and having a lack of understanding.

Human trafficking

As the number of migrants trying to flee to Europe through sea rose, the Turkish Coast Guard initiated “Operation Safe Med“ in the Mediterranean and “ Operation Aegean Hope“ in 2015. According to the data from the Turkish Coast Guard from the operations carried out in the Aegean sea, in 2014, 574 incidents regarding migrants occurs traffickers have been recorded. 106 traffickers have been detained in these operations. In 2015, the number of intercepted incidents rose

to 2430, and the number of traffickers detained were 190. Up to November in 2016, the number of incidents were 762, and the number of traffickers caught were 89. The number of migrants stopped from crossing the Aegean in the past two years fell from 82,714 in 2015 to 36,349 in 2016.

According to the data by the Turkish Red Crescent, 206,000 migrants have been intercepted on their way out of Turkey in 2015, and over 5,000 human traffickers have been detained, overall. This number includes not just the irregular migration in the Aegean or Mediterranean but the east, south and the south east of Turkey as well. The Migration Office data suggests that in 2014 in all of Turkey, 1506 traffickers have been caught. In 2015 this number was 4.471. So far this year, this number is 3,052. It was announced that harsher punishments to traffickers were to be implemented, up to 16 years per death in which the trafficker was responsible for. There are even accounts of extreme measures being taken by the Turkish army in border regions, through use of guns .“By March this year, we received the first reports of Turkish border guards shooting and killing families trying to cross,“ said Gerry Simpson, HRW’s refugee researcher. “Since that time, it’s become nearly impossible to flee into Turkey.“

Before the agreement with Europe went into effect, there was the habit of “turning a blind eye“ against trafficking. Shops that manufactured fake life jackets were known to the police, there were accounts of migrants attempting to cross the sea before the eyes of the security forces, without intervention. In September 2015, a movement that started among the migrants in the name of “Crossing no more“ was initiated, as a response to all the deaths that occurred while crossing to Europe by sea. In an attempt to break the movement, Turkish security forces picked up migrants from Istanbul on busses and some were dropped off near Izmir, where they were almost encouraged to cross by sea. Before the deal, migrants who had been detained by the Turkish police, Gendarmerie or the coast guard were first sent to small detention centers nearby and then – usually after a few days or even on the same day, sent by bus to Anatolian cities where they were 'offloaded’.

Since the EU agreement was implemented, an arrival center has been established in Dikili, opposite Lesbos, where refugees returning Greece are registered. The EU, through IPA, funded the construction of additional centers. Through IPA (Pre Accession Funds), Turkey initiated the “Victims of Human Trafficking Project“ in 2011, to provide protection, assistance and awareness to those who were victims of human trafficking. From 2014 to 2017, also through EU funding (ICSP) a project has been ongoing in order to provide political, legal, technical and information assistance to fight human trafficking. Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, Pakistan and Albania are also part of the project.

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