Five years on: the effects of the EU-Turkey deal on the lives of refugees

EU Laws
March 18, 2021
5 min read
IHA Team

The Deal and its Impact

Five years ago today, the European Union and Turkey reached an agreement to “address the migration crisis” in the Eastern Mediterranean. Refugees arriving to the Greek islands were, on dubious legal grounds, to be sent back to Turkey. In “exchange”, for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from the islands, another Syrian refugee in Turkey would be resettled to the EU. Not only does this mechanism commodify people seeking safety and dignity for political motives, it has been unsuccessful in creating legal safe migration pathways; to this day, only some thousand people were legally resettled to EU member states.

However, the deal did fundamentally change how refugees arriving to Europe were to be treated ever since. The Aegean “hotspot” islands were effectively turned into large-scale detention facilities with inhumane living conditions. Since returning asylum seekers en masse to Turkey through “fast-track procedures” did not work out as intended, camps have become massively overcrowded and people stuck for years. The fact that conditions have since deteriorated rather than improved suggests that this state of affairs is a politically intended deterrent. What is more, independent investigations have recently uncovered multiple well-documented cases of illegal pushbacks, some involving the EU border agency Frontex.

Over the past five years, denying people their fundamental human rights and dignity for the sake of ‘keeping the numbers down’ has become a tacit EU policy.

– Moritz Reitschuster, IHA Operations Manager

Closed Camps

The recent move towards closed camps demonstrates that the Greek government and EU continue to pursue severe forms of segregation rather than working towards integration as a solution to the so-called refugee crisis, detrimental to those forced to live in these structures as well as the host population. The psychosocial effects of incarceration in regards to people’s agency and mental wellbeing are severe and will put communities or individuals facing discrimination within the camp particularly at risk. Asylum seekers staying in closed facilities will be completely socially isolated, with no chances of cross-cultural activities or opportunities to meet people from the host population. It will also block any opportunities to become economically autonomous; people will be completely dependent on the state and international organisations, which can lead to mental deterioration.

What should not be forgotten is that these closed camps are essentially prisons; people escaping war, persecution, deprivation, environmental catastrophes – to name just a few reasons why people choose to make the journey to Europe – are being imprisoned and forced to stay in camps where the conditions are often just as bad or even worse that the conditions they're fleeing from.

Closed camps have huge potential to retraumatise individuals and communities who have left everything behind in pursuit of safety and stability.

– Moritz Reitschuster, IHA Operations Manager

The Reality for Refugees in Greece

It has been frustrating and upsetting to witness people be completely stripped of their agency through barriers at a local, national and international level. The EU and national bureaucratic systems prevent people from moving forward with their lives and contributing to society. It has been hard to repeatedly watch the system break individuals, leaving them feeling hopeless and mentally exhausted.

What has also been frustrating has been witnessing the same issues arise year on year. The authorities’ yearly unpreparedness for the winter months and consequential inhumane living conditions that people are forced to live in, especially on the Aegean islands, have been appalling. As is the fact that, so many years later, grassroots organisations are still needed to fill gaps in emergency needs, both within camps and for those living on the street due to an inaccessible asylum system, in particular on the Greek mainland.

Asylum seekers have little or no access to adult education, including language classes or skills development. There is not enough legal assistance, including access to trained interpreters, to support people through the asylum process or help navigate bureaucratic processes – for example, assistance in obtaining the documentation required to work, document renewals, and ensuring all children are registered and able to attend school.

Ways Forward

We urge the European Union and its member states to abandon the failed EU-Turkey deal and the inhumane policies and practices it brought along. Refugees and asylum seekers must have their rights upheld, be treated with dignity and respect and be afforded real opportunities to start a new life.

Safe and adequate accommodation

Accommodation in safe, suitable housing in places that take into consideration the individual needs of particular groups and individuals. This could mean cities, where governments could renovate and transform unused buildings into safe and suitable housing, as well as smaller towns and villages, where newcomers can help to counteract demographic decline and reinvigorate rural areas.

Fairness, transparency and access

The reception of asylum seekers should mean having a clear and transparent asylum process with shorter deadlines that are adhered to. There should be easy to navigate pathways so that people can launch their asylum claim on arrival to a country, as is enshrined in international human rights law, so that they can be efficiently registered in the system and able to access their rights as an asylum seeker. All authorities and personnel involved in reception and throughout the asylum process should be trained in the asylum process, trauma informed practice, de-escalation and non-violent communication, and have an understanding of international protection law.

During the asylum process, people should be able to access their right to education, work (as well as receive support in acquiring the required documentation to access this right), free legal support, housing in humane and dignified conditions (in apartments or houses in places where they are real social and economic opportunities and access to services), as well as have access to social workers and psychologists (trained to work in this specific context and who either speak their language or who are trained to work with a suitably trained interpreter).

Integration and information

Integration opportunities should be offered throughout the asylum process, including receiving high-quality language classes, support in employability skills development, assistance finding work, and in meeting locals. Once international protection status is received, economic support and housing should be offered until the individual or family is able to support themselves, and unemployed asylum seekers and refugees should be able to access the same economic and employability support as the host population.

Asylum seekers should be provided with the necessary information so that they’re able to make informed decisions on their transition to independent living once they receive international protection, including advice and training on their rights, language, housing, culture and employment, to facilitate their smooth inclusion and active involvement in the host community.

Inclusive support structures

The creation of spaces or groups that allow refugees to feel comfortable and safe, and which foster a sense of belonging, can make a huge difference in people’s lives, as well as contribute to the inclusion of refugees in the local community. For example, projects that provide employability support or help people develop new skills. It’s great to see people develop skills which they’re passionate about and that allow them to sustain themselves financially. Spaces or projects led by people with lived experience of the asylum system are especially important.

Initiatives that help people regain their agency, supporting them to become independent and reclaim control of their lives, can have a particularly long-term impact.

– Laira Phylactou-Bastow, IHA Volunteer Coordinator

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