Refugees at Risk: Managing the European Union’s Declining Power in Turkey


When did the relationship between the European Union and Turkey go completely off the rails? It’s hard to say. Turkey’s democratic backsliding has certainly contributed to the fracture in relations. In May 2019, the European Union released its latest report on Turkey’s progress towards E.U. membership. On numerous topics — the judicial system, corruption, the economy, and human rights — the European Union found there was either limited progress or serious backsliding. And after decades of advancing relations with Turkey, any influence the European Union may once have had over the democratic trajectory of the country appears to be faltering. As long as the European Union fails to address its own institutional deficiencies in migration management, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will exploit rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe for the sake of political opportunism.

Turkey: A Frontline State to the War in Syria

Similar to other popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, demands for democratic reforms, economic opportunities, and an end to corruption and a tradition of impunity could be heard across Syria in the spring of 2011. Instead of introducing liberalizing reforms, President Bashar al-Assad followed in the footsteps of his father, Hafez al-Assad, and authorized Syria’s security-intelligence apparatus to crush the civilian-led movement for a democratic state structure. Since the conflict mushroomed into a civil war, the magnitude of suffering borne by civilians has been enormous and unprecedented. More than 11 million Syrians have fled fighting and repression, to other parts of the country or to neighboring frontline states: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Over 500,000 people have been killed, wounded or disabled as a direct result of the war. Hundreds of thousands have been subjected to abduction, detention, and systematic torture by the Syrian regime.



Just across Syria’s northern border, Turkey pursued an open-door policy for Syrian refugees, allowing them to enter its territory without official documents. Under the auspices of the Ministry of the Presidency, the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority and the Turkish Red Crescent delivered humanitarian aid and constructed temporary accommodation centers for those escaping the war in provinces located along the Turkish-Syrian border. In 2014, Turkey passed Law no. 6458 on Foreigners and International Protection to regulate the legal parameters of protection and assistance. A special “temporary protection” status granted recipients access to public healthcare facilities, the state education system, and social services. Two years later, in 2016, Turkey eased the entry of Syrians registered under temporary protection into the formal labor market.

Yet, despite these modifications to Turkey’s immigration policy, there is no comprehensive rights-based structure for asylum seekers; Turkey’s geographic stipulation to the 1951 Geneva Convention means that it only grants full refugee status to citizens from countries within the Council of Europe, which excludes Syria. The economic integration and social inclusion of Syrian refugees were hampered by discrimination, particularly in the labor market, and protracted poverty. Some Syrians believed they could live a more dignified life in Europe. In 2015, reports indicated that up to 2,000 irregular migrants were crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands every day, with the intent of reaching mainland Europe. Images of refugees and migrants risking unimaginable journeys in the media posed a moral dilemma for Europe.

Refugees as Pawns: Turkey’s Shift in Policy

By 2015, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party had intensified the use of hard power mechanisms in its engagement with Syria. The overthrow of the Assad regime, aiding opposition militias, eliminating the threat of ISIL, and preventing the People’s Protection Units from establishing an area of dominance along its border overshadowed attempts to establish a rights-based approach to the economic integration and social inclusion of Syrian refugees in Turkey. It is now eight years since the start of the war, and anti-refugee sentiment is intensifying across the political spectrum in Turkey. In a recent address to an audience of Justice and Development Party supporters a few days after the latest military incursion in Syria, Erdogan reduced human life to a commodity, to be bartered for his own political gains. He claimed he would, “open the doors and send 3.6 million migrants,” to Europe if Operation Peace Spring was questioned and categorized as an invasion.

The pressure to send refugees back to Syria is also mounting. A study conducted by Istanbul Bilgi University’s Center for Migration Research revealed that more than 85 percent of respondents favored the repatriation of refugees from Turkey. This is extremely worrying. For the time being, the safe and dignified voluntary return of internally displaced people and refugees is not a viable prospect. Arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, the widespread use of torture, military conscription, and dire humanitarian conditions still pose a daily risk to civilians in Syria.

Alarmingly, Amnesty International reported that Turkish authorities have increased arbitrary arrests, detentions, and deportations of Syrian refugees from Turkey to Syria. Ankara’s plan to establish a ‘safe zone’ and repatriate at least one million Syrian refugees in northeastern Syria is nothing more than a project in ethnic re-engineering. Operation Peace Spring has displaced more than 200,000 people and significantly strained access to humanitarian assistance. Civilian casualties are multiplying, with reports of more than 200 civilian deaths and 650 wounded. According to a United Nations Human Rights Commissioner spokesman, Turkey may be held responsible for war crimes committed by its proxy militias that fall under the banner of the Syrian National Army, after video footage appeared to show Kurdish captives being executed. Turkey is also known to have used white phosphorous munitions over non-combatant areas in Syria.

European Union-Turkey Humanitarian Arrangement: Well-Intentioned But Inadequate

Amidst rising anti-immigrant sentiment and the increasing popularity of the authoritarian far-right, the European Union was compelled to devise a new action plan on migration. In 2016, the European Union proposed to strengthen cooperation with Turkey and intensify interventions to decrease irregular migration from Turkey to Europe. To do this, the European Union indicated it would designate funding to assist with the humanitarian response, advance the Visa Liberalization Dialogue for Turkish citizens traveling to Europe, reinvigorate negotiations over the European Union accession process, and accelerate the modernization of its customs union with Turkey. For Turkey’s part, the government agreed to strengthen its border-management capacity, especially on the shores of the Aegean Sea, and accept any new irregular migrants who arrived in Greece from Turkey and whose applications for asylum in Greece were rejected. Finally, European Union member states were supposed to accept a designated number of refugees directly from Turkey, as an incentive for asylum seekers to register with the Turkish government and operate within formal immigration procedures. However, the proposal never fully materialized, and three member states, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, refused to comply with the European Union asylum quota system as proposed by the European Commission.

Despite evolving into the most comprehensive humanitarian endeavor in the history of the European Union, this effort was never intended to address the core factor instigating the humanitarian crisis: the war in Syria. The European Union and its member states should have invested every ounce of influence available to promote an inclusive political settlement at the onset of the war. Instead, the European Union launched two main initiatives, the European Union Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis (the Madad Fund) and the Facility for Refugees, to funnel more than €6 billion for humanitarian relief and development assistance.

In spending this money, the European Union emphasized livelihoods security to maximize the impact of assistance, prioritizing skills development, employment generation, entrepreneurship, and private-sector development. While these programming elements appeared positive, it is difficult to ascertain their overall impact in the absence of robust monitoring, verification, and evaluation systems. Donors should designate sufficient funding for implementing partners, especially smaller non-governmental organizations, to either develop the institutional capacity necessary to conduct robust assessments of their work or collaborate with firms that specialize in measuring the effectiveness of humanitarian and development assistance.

Furthermore, although some solicitations for development programming included requirements for recipient organizations to adopt conflict-sensitive approaches in their programming, there was usually no formal monitoring mechanism in place. It is important that implementing partners have an in-depth knowledge of local dynamics and political sensitivities in the areas in which they are operating, and of how their interventions impact communities. For instance, only including Syrian refugees in project activities could trigger negative sentiment among host communities that would be difficult to resolve. In an attempt to avoid the negative consequences of their programming, some organizations also recruited members from host communities. However, as I wrote in a piece in early 2019, “if local cultural dynamics are not fully understood, such a ‘simple’ adjustment in operations might still prevent organizations from properly addressing grievances and from pursuing inclusive practices, especially in multicultural and multi-ethnic communities.” Equipped with the knowledge of how activities might impact local communities, implementing organizations can adjust their operations in order to prevent negative impacts and maximize positive ones.

Maximizing E.U. Leverage for Syrian Refugees

The European Union no longer has as much influence over Turkey’s democratic trajectory as it once had at the height of the customs union and accession processes. With what leverage remains, the European Union should require recipients of funds from the European Union Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis and the Facility for Refugees to adopt conflict-sensitive approaches in their programming. It is critical that implementing organizations understand how aid impacts the multidimensional layers of society in order to avoid any unintended negative consequences. Despite the absence of robust monitoring, verification, and evaluation systems, local administrations and civil society in Turkey have performed exceptionally well. Since the attempted coup in 2016, many organizations, including municipalities located in the south-east, have been operating under severe stress due to government crackdowns, restrictions on their functions, and increased pressure to operate without adequate resources.

Syrian refugees are still waiting. The political solution that remains the most viable path to reconciliation, justice, and sustainable peace is elusive. Unable to return home, Syrians have become victims of an increasingly authoritarian Turkey and its failing relationship with the European Union. Using its remaining leverage over humanitarian spending to ensure that Syrian refugees get the most out of humanitarian assistance is the best way for the European Union to move forward.



Christina Bache is a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, IDEAS and Chair of the United Nations Principles for Responsible Management Education, Business for Peace working group. Up until March of this year, she was a Visiting Fellow at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, the official political think tank of the European People’s Party in Brussels.

Image: President of Turkey