Life may never completely return to normal for Syrian refugees displaced by a decade-long civil war, but their plight could at least be treated with dignity and basic respect for humanity. Instead, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has seen fit to use their situation as one would use a card in a game of poker. After receiving approval from United States President Donald Trump, Turkish forces immediately stormed across the Syrian border in an attempt to carve out what Erdogan called a “safe zone.”
As many members in the international community, practically all world powers with the exception of Russia, condemned the wholesale slaughter of Kurds living in a land Erdogan intends for the resettlement of Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey. When European leaders spoke out against the stunning Turkish offensive, Erdogan audaciously tried to blackmail them into silence.
“We will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way,” Erdogan promised if European leaders continue to label the Turkish attack as an “occupation.”
Turkey hosts the most refugees of any nation, including 3.6 million Syrians. While it was originally incredibly welcoming of them, Turks have shifted their opinions recently, especially this year, amid an economic downturn. It is difficult to point to one particular factor that has led to economic decline, but the Turks do their best to try by scapegoating Syrians. In the June elections, Syrian refugees were said to be a top issue for voters who turned their fury upon Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, losing him the Istanbul mayorship.
Now, in his way, Erdogan is telling the world, “Look, I have a solution to our problem, now keep your mouth shut before it becomes your problem.” The President of the European Council would have none of it, however.
“We will never accept that refugees are weaponised and used to blackmail us,” said Donald Tusk. It is Europe that helped create this problem, though, after it cut a deal with Erdogan in 2016. It promised six billion euros to serve as a buffer between European states and Syria. In many ways that worked – the number of arrivals fell from 1,015,078 to less than 400,000. In return, Ankara was charged with accepting migrants the EU refused, either because they failed to apply for asylum or due to their claim being rejected.
Germany accepted the largest number of refugees, although an overwhelming percentage passed through Greece first by boat. Berlin received 800,000 asylum applications in 2016 alone, almost double its total from the previous year. In many ways, this has helped the German economy by boosting the number of skilled labourers.
“We have reasons – not just soft, feel-good ones – to assist and help and push refugees into vocational training,” said Günter Hirth, economist for the Hanover Chamber of Commerce. “The German economy needs qualified workers.”
Deal with the Devil
The situation is not a perfect solution for Syrian refugees, however, nor all states hold the same attitude towards them. The asylum process is long and arduous and families can even be separated as some members are approved to enter Germany while others must stay behind. Refugees live in poverty with an often uncertain future. Naturally, there have also been integration issues as well.
Erdogan has on several occasions claimed that the six billion euros offered by the EU is no longer sufficient to meet the demands migrants impose on the Turkish economy. Therefore, his best idea is to simply get rid of them, whether it be back to Syria or Europe, it matters little to Erdogan. The EU is not without blame however as it simply agreed to pay Ankara to deal with the problem while turning a blind eye to its actions. Furthermore, by cutting a deal with Erdogan in 2016, it showed that the EU is willing to pay to keep the problem off its doorstep and there is money to be made by politicizing the Syrian crisis.
Some diplomats are warning the flow of migrants through Turkey has already begun to pick up. The UN recorded 45,600 arrivals so far this year. The solution may be to unite Europe under a single asylum policy, one that would include every state carrying its fair share of the burden.
“If we leave all the countries on the EU’s external border (to fend for themselves), there will never be a common European asylum policy,” German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said. “And if there is no common European asylum policy, there is a danger that uncontrolled immigration will once again take place, throughout Europe. We have seen this before and I do not want it to happen again.”
Regardless of how the EU decides its collective policy, it must also grapple with how to negotiate with Erdogan. As Turkey is not a member of the Protocol to the Refugee Convention, some critics argue the 2015 deal should be null and void as Ankara does not guarantee protection to those under its wing. This detail is of little concern to a dictator who is willing to simply push the problem back into Syria, at the expense of the Kurds, or leverage them against the EU, also by pushing the problem out of Turkey.
There exists no easy solution when dealing with a strongman like Erdogan, but the EU must deal with him nevertheless. It can either act more forceful than the Turkish president in an attempt to break him or it can be more merciful and accept refugees with open arms.