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Child refugees in Tobali, Turkey, in a makeshift school they were later forced to abandon. Photo: Nina Aandahl.
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European governments leading the charge in the ‘war on terror’ have bought the right to turn their backs on its casualties for a cool £4.6 billion by striking their deal with Turkey. In exchange for the funds and loosened visa restrictions on Turkish citizens, the European Union has been able to violate its international obligations and outsource its refugee crisis.
For its part, the EU has promised to ‘resettle’ one refugee from Turkey for each one deported back from Greece, trading them like gambling chips across the table until they reach their cap of 72,000: a fraction of the two million refugees already there.
Amnesty International describes the deal as ‘a death blow to the right to seek asylum’, demonstrating an ‘alarmingly short-sighted and inhumane attitude’. And with Nato warships launched in the Aegean to help ‘seal the maritime border’ and authorities moving in to sweep away independent volunteers in Greece and elsewhere, Fortress Europe has slammed its doors on Syria and is doing its best to cover up the human cost.
On paper, the deal is supposed to secure Turkey as both a border guard for Fortress Europe and as a safe haven for refugees. In reality, the two completely contradict each other.
Turkey’s border control efforts have always been inconsistent. Officials turn a blind eye to massive smuggling operations with links to the political establishment. But with other boats, they send a different message to the EU with a brutal policy of capsizing, cutting fuel lines, firing live ammunition and even electrocuting passengers.
Turkey certainly has a strong incentive to be seen stopping boats: the EU deal depended on it. Funds and concessions have also been granted to Ankara in exchange for it maintaining refugee camps and securing its own borders.
The Erdoğan administration has been building fences, deploying water cannon and upgrading its surveillance systems. Human Rights Watch has condemned Turkey’s border closures for forcing pregnant women, children, elderly people, the sick and the injured to ‘run the gauntlet of Turkish border officials to escape the horrors of Syria’s war’.
Because Turkey is not a full signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention it assumes no obligation to assess asylum claims on its territory and, as any Syrian will tell you, it is common knowledge that smuggling is the only way in. To try this, however, is to risk everything.
In April, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the fatal shooting of 16 Syrian refugees, including three children, by Turkish border guards. The story amplified the alarm bells frontline volunteers and refugees that had been ringing for years. As far back as November 2014, Amnesty International was reporting Syrian refugees being abused, threatened and even murdered by Turkish authorities. Such violent instability exposes the lack of credibility of EU claims that Turkey is a safe route for refugees.
Those who make it into Turkey are ensnared in desperate poverty. Already there are more Syrian refugees in Istanbul—mostly sleeping rough—than all of Europe has resettled. Less than 0.1 per cent of Syrians in the country are in line for work permits, few refugee children find a place in school and refugees report the camps are wracked with deprivation. Yet the mainstream media commonly refers to them as some of the ‘nicest in the world’.
In reality, media access is so limited that much remains hidden from the outside world. This is glimpsed only through leaked videos—like the one recently posted to YouTube showing 2,500 refugees being housed on the floor of a sports hall, sharing ‘two toilets and no exits’—and testimony from independent volunteers. In February, Danish volunteer Nina Aandahl was working in Torbalı, western Turkey, where ‘there were more than 2,000 refugees living in awful conditions, mostly Syrian Bedouins. Volunteers made many improvements: a kitchen, a school, sanitation . . . I went home for a break and when I got back, the police had forced everyone out.’
Her Palestinian colleague Mohammad Khanfer adds that many local camps are now labour camps, where refugees must work just to earn water and food. He also speculates the Torbalı camps were closed due to ‘too much publicity and too much help [from volunteers]’.
Refugees in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Marienna Pope-Weidemann.
More recently, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report that Turkey has been systematically ejecting refugees by the hundred back into Syria, including children. Many report being beaten or detained before being pushed back into the warzone they came from. In one documented case, following a fire at the Süleymanah camp that killed at least two children, 600 people were deported back to Syria without trial on the grounds they were ‘spies for Bashar al-Assad’. Those that Europe is pushing out may well face a similar fate in Turkey.
Despite all this, no official investigation has been called and the EU-Turkey deal rolls ahead regardless. Erdoğan is determined to present Turkey as a strong candidate for EU membership. This means projecting strength and competence in ‘managing’ refugees on behalf of European powers. It does not mean the political reform necessary to make Turkey a safe refuge—and the EU remains determined to turn a blind eye to this. According to EU Council president Donald Tusk: ‘Turkey is the best example for the whole world for how we should treat refugees . . . Nobody should lecture Turkey on what to do.’
Beyond the Turkish government’s treatment of refugees and the miserable conditions they are forced to endure, there is another, more insidious factor that exposes the gravity of the danger they face under the deal.
Many refugees fleeing the tyranny and brutality of ISIS are convinced Turkey actually supports the very terrorists they need asylum from—and the evidence is mounting. In an open letter to Ban-Ki Moon, Syria’s UN envoy accused Erdoğan of helping armed terrorists reach Syria, of supplying weapons and of complicity in the ‘smuggling of stolen Syrian oil by ISIS into Turkey’ for profit.
When I was in Lesbos earlier this year I heard the same in eyewitness reports from refugees. They claim to have seen Turkish soldiers giving military and medical aid to Islamist militants. ISIS commanders have publicly stated that most of their weapons and supplies come through Turkey, and so-called ‘aid convoys’ have been found to contain weapons shipments, some flown right into Ankara airport.
David L Philips, a director at Colombia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, has compiled an extensive research paper on Turkish state support for ISIS. It not only corroborates refugees’ accounts but indicates that Turkey provides military and recruitment training to ISIS fighters. The paper also documents Turkish forces fighting side by side with ISIS in the battle for Kobane.
To compound matters, Erdoğan is engaged in a civil war against Turkey’s Kurdish minority, whose leftist militants have been the most courageous and effective fighters against ISIS and other far-right Islamists. The Turkish state condemns them as ‘terrorists’ but it was the predominantly Kurdish forces of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the Democratic Union Party (YPG) that rescued thousands of Yazidi civilians from ISIS in 2014, that fought to protect Christian communities in Syria and that have renounced violence against civilians—which is more than we can say for the ruling government.
By August last year the YPG, having driven ISIS out of Kobane and the Syrian city of Gire Spi, were about to push them back from their last Turkish border town, Jarablus: their most vital supply route. Many speculated this could have turned the tide against them forever. But then Erdoğan stepped in, declaring Jarablus a ‘red line,’ which, if crossed, would bring the might of the Turkish army down on the YPG.
As David Graeber put it, if Turkey treated ISIS like it does the PKK, ‘that blood-stained “caliphate” would long since have collapsed—and arguably, the Paris attacks may never have happened . . . Yet, has a single western leader called on Erdoğan to do this?’ No. What they have done is entrust refugees to a government that is sponsoring the very terrorists that have destroyed their homes and murdered their families.
Greek officials have said they would need a 20-fold increase in staff just to enact the deal as it stands. But not only is it unfeasible, it’s also illegal under international human rights law. In Turkey, refugees have no real constitutional or legal protection. Simply put, as even the UN High Commission for Refugees admits, they have no rights. ‘There but by the grace of Erdoğan they go.’ This means conditions could go from bad to worse very quickly, should the murky complex of geopolitical interests that surround this deal turn against them.
What’s more, the distinctly European notion that enough walls and enough violence can fortify Europe against the refugee crisis is more than inhumane; it’s delusional. Refugees fleeing brutal conflict will not ‘give up and go home’ in the face of a few roadblocks. They can’t. There is no home for them to go back to. That is why the dynamics of this crisis have always been so fluid. Even if the deal is successful in turning Greece into the bottleneck for mass deportations to Turkey, desperate and resourceful people will find another way, however hazardous.
Crossings from North Africa to Italy are already soaring—over 16,000 in 2016 at the time of writing. With search and rescue operations cut across the continent, we can expect to see more stories like the 500 people who recently drowned off the Libyan coast, especially if this deal remains intact. So as a solution to the crisis, the deal was doomed from the outset. It is a strategy only for the relocation of their struggle out of sight.
Belgian migration minister Theo Francken is claimed to have told the Greeks, ‘we don’t care if you drown them’. But of course, a lot of people did care. They worked hard to get the truth heard over the din of popular racism, party politics and foreign policy agendas. They got the world watching and an international solidarity movement blossomed. But under a corrupt and repressive regime, the world can’t watch Turkey. This is a nation that jailed more journalists than China last year. And if the refugees’ struggle—for dignity, for freedom, for life—is swept under a Turkish rug, it’s out of sight.
A good friend of mine, an Iraqi Kurd who fled ISIS persecution and thankfully made it to Germany, once wrote to me that ‘at home, you are mute, you cannot have an opinion about anything,’ and that more than money, than food, than a house, he wants ‘to know what it feels like to be free’.
Deporting refugees to Turkey strips them of this right, in the name of which we have bombed and occupied their region for a generation. And that is to say nothing of what faces those trapped on the Syrian side of the border, caught between the advance of ISIS and the locked gates of Fortress Europe.