In early March 2016, after months of negotiations, the EU’s 28 heads of states reached an agreement with the Turkish government to slow the refugee influx into Europe. The so-called 1:1 plan — for each undocumented migrant Turkey takes back from Greece, the EU would take one refugee from Turkey — went into effect on March 20, 2016. Under the terms of the deal, the EU would give Turkey six billion euros ($6.7 billion) to support hosting refugees and revisit its stalled attempt to join the EU.
At the time, critics pointed out that the plan would violate principles of international law, which guarantee refugees individual review of their asylum application. Three of the most prominent humanitarian agencies, the UN refugee agency UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders, and the Norwegian Refugee Council, called the deal illegal and harmful to refugees. These criticisms waned, however, as fewer migrants crossed the dangerous Aegean from Turkey, in the deal’s wake — decreasing from 853,650 in 2015 to 173,614 in 2016 and 29,515 in 2017, according to the UN migration agency IOM. The number of migrants who died or went missing while crossing to Greece also dropped dramatically.
Yet critics were correct that, in entering this deal, the EU was primarily interested in keeping refugees and other migrants out of Fortress Europe and had little desire to address the structural causes of the Syria refugee crisis or manage migration. Since the deal, for example, the EU has not created any new legal pathways to asylum for those fleeing conflict. In fact, the number of refugees accepted for resettlement — other than in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, which have taken in the largest number of refugees— has dropped globally by 54% from 2016 to 2017, with the United States accepting only 24,559 refugees while the EU has only agreed to resettle 50,000 refugees in 2018 and 2019.
The EU’s most ambitious refugee resettlement effort was its two-year emergency relocation program, which launched in September 2015. Under this scheme, EU member states committed to relocating 160,000 asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU countries. In particular, if successful, this EU program would have allowed the 60,000-odd refugees that were stuck in Greece after the borders with Macedonia were closed in March 2016, to leave. The program’s implementation was slow, however, and there was much resistance to “quota refugees” from Central European governments, as well as logistical hurdles. Only 31,500 asylum-seekers had found refuge in an EU country when the program ended in September 2017.
Meanwhile Turkey appears to have upheld its side of the bargain. It now hosts over 3.7 million refugees. The Turkish government’s political crackdown after the attempted coup d’état against Turkish President Erdoğan in July 2016, as well as its questionable human rights record have, however, dwindled the prospects for Turkish membership in the EU.
Recent reports that a new Balkan-route has opened via Bosnia-Herzegovina, cast further doubt on the agreement. Two years on the EU-Turkey refugee deal seems to have only been a band aid.