Expert Voice

2016 is a decisive year for Turkey and the EU - part I

12 February 2016

This is the first of two articles about Turkey’s approach to migration and the most immediate challenges arising from the ‘refugee crisis’. While this article analyses EU-Turkey relations, the second part zooms into the institutional set-up of migration management in Turkey.

By Tamer Kılıç

Since the beginning of the Syrian war, Turkey has been hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. Cooperation on migration between Turkey and the EU intensified since an increasing number started to make their way to Europe in summer 2015. The ‘refugee crisis’ gave momentum to a dialogue about migration which has been ongoing for a couple of years, but now seems to lead to concrete results.

Steps towards visa liberalisation

A milestone in this cooperation was reached when an EU-Turkey readmission agreement, under negotiation since 2003, was signed in December 2013 and both sides ratified it in a comparatively short period of time. At a high-level summit in November 2015, Turkish and European leaders concluded that the readmission agreement would come into force as of June 2016, instead of late 2017, as initially envisaged.
Turkey’s commitment to meet the deadline for starting the implementation of the readmission agreement seems strong as the relevant public institutions, especially the Directorate General for Migration Management, has stepped up its preparatory work. (Read part II of this blog to learn more about the institutional set-up of migration management in Turkey and ICMPD’s work in this area. )

The authorities in Turkey are giving utmost importance to meeting the requirements of the visa liberalisation process and fulfilling the benchmarks set by the EU. The signature of said readmission agreement was part of the requirements towards visa liberalisation, aimed at granting visa-free access to Europe’s Schengen countries for Turkish citizens. In late 2014, the EC published its first assessment report on Turkey’s progress in relation to implementation of the requirements of road map. Both sides agreed to complete the process by October 2016 and ICMPD will continue to support the Turkish authorities to fulfil their commitments, amongst other through the UK-funded project ‘DGMM II’.
This progress on visa liberalisation and the swift adoption of the readmission agreement clearly show that the cooperation between the EU and Turkey on migration has reached another level. 

More refugees, more to discuss

When the number of people from conflict-torn regions crossing into Europe through Turkey reached record highs in late summer 2015, a new opportunity to strengthen and expand the dialogue between EU and Turkey and to develop concrete actions arose. A joint action plan developed in October 2015 was adopted at the aforementioned EU-Turkey summit in November of the same year.  

Through this action plan, the EU committed to provide an initial amount of 3 billion EUR of additional resources to Turkey mainly for supporting the 2,5 million displaced Syrians in the country. This funding will top up the 8 billion USD that Turkey has already spent for their reception. Both sides also agreed to step up their active cooperation on irregular migration and the fight against criminal smuggling networks. At this stage, it is difficult to estimate the potential number of irregular migrants that may be returned. The EU, Turkey and the countries of origin need to work better together to walk the talk and to find durable solutions for all migrants. The Budapest Process, a multilateral migration dialogue chaired by Turkey, offers countries along the migration route a platform to discuss their challenges with regard to the present crisis and to align responses.

Another area of cooperation is the resettlement of (mainly Syrian) refugees from Turkey to Europe. Germany is leading a ‘coalition of the willing’ and Chancellor Markel has discussed options to set up resettlement significantly. So far, the EU only proposed to resettle 20.000 persons to its member states, a fraction of at least 200.000 places needed per year, according to UNHCR. Europe will only engage in resettlement if Turkey will stop the irregular movement of refugees from its harbours to Greek islands. Though if the government commits to stemming the outflow, it will also seek to better control and limit crossing into Turkey. Which implications this would have for the migrants coming as well as for other countries hosting them, such as Iran and Lebanon, has not yet been discussed sufficiently.

Besides restrictive measures to curb irregular migration, Turkey has continued to take further actions to facilitate the stay of refugees who do not leave the country to move on Europe. While Turkey still maintains the geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a new law passed in 2013 (learn more in part II of the blog) provides protection and assistance for asylum seekers and refugees, regardless of their country of origin. Since then, they have access to education, health care and social assistance. In mid-January 2016, Turkey granted persons under temporary protection the right to obtain work permits.

Sharing responsibility to tackle the crisis

When it comes to providing protection and meeting the basic needs of refugees, shared responsibility and intensive cooperation between the EU and Turkey is indispensable.  Both sides need to continue making progress in implementing the commitments made in the past years and months, especially those from the joint action plan.

If there is no immediate progress, this may halt the ongoing dialogue. However when considering the nature of the migration crises and complexity of handling it to get immediate results, possible pitfalls that may appear in the short term, should not be interpreted as that cooperation does not work effectively. 
The number of migrants trying to exit Turkey irregularly remains high and is expected to grow as soon as spring arrives. It appears that if the EU wants Turkey to stem the irregular outflows, it will need to open other legal and safe pathways into Europe. Measures to address irregular movements will fail if they are not embedded in a more comprehensive strategy or policy that also includes options for legal migration.

Clearly, 2016 will be decisive year for the EU and Turkey to develop joint measures, as short term success in the implementation of recently agreed measures will determine how (smoothly) the cooperation will continue in the longer run.


Tamer Kilic is ICMPD's Local Representative in Turkey. 

The views expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ICMPD.