EU 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 lessened visa restrictions on Turkish citizens, the EU has been able to violate its international obligations and outsource its refugee crisis.
For its part, the EU 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 2 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.
The EU-Turkey deal has unfolded against a backdrop of rapid militarisation in the EU’s refugee response system. On land, the military are playing an ever-greater role in the reception and detention of refugees. Meanwhile, the Greek government scrambles to follow EU directives for so-called ‘hotspots’ and military ‘relocation camps’ for the processing of migrants and refugees in the Aegean islands – which some Greek soldiers have likened to concentration camps and refused to help construct.
NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg has described the Syrian refugee crisis as a ‘major security threat’ and deployed five NATO warships in the Aegean. Stoltenberg insisted the naval operation was “not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats” although they have admitted that’s precisely what they will do with those ‘rescued’ at sea. They will also carry out reconnaissance against the smugglers, but pass their information back to the Turkish state.
So here we begin to see the insanity and ultimate ineffectuality of the EU-Turkey deal. There are few threats to refugees on their territory that the Turkish government doesn’t seem to have a hand in – starting with the smuggling networks they’re being paid to eradicate. Though publicly committed to clamping down on the smuggling networks packing refugees into ‘the death boats’ to Greece, many on the frontline are convinced that here again, officials are in fact complicit. If you’re with the right smuggler, police and coastguards give you a pass. One smuggling boss, who calls himself Malik al-Behar (‘King of the Shores’) even describes his landing docks as ‘military territories’ under surveillance by the Turkish police.
In the last quarter of 2015 when I was in Lesvos, thousands of refugees arrived every day. The boats only stopped twice: the first lull surrounded an official visit by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, for which the camps were cleared and cleaned and thousands of refugees were shipped off the island; the second coincided with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey, when arrivals on Lesvos’ chaotic northern beaches more than halved.
I shared this observation with Abdul Majid, a Syrian refugee and former Free Syrian Army soldier: “That’s just how it happens.” He smiled as though it were obvious. “When a politician is coming with media, they change everything, make the camps look nice. This is the system they have to hide the situation from the European people. [The politicians and smugglers] are all in on it together.”
Turkey’s border control efforts have always been contradictory. One the one hand, officials turn a blind eye to massive smuggling operations with links to the political establishment. On the other hand, the authorities need to send a different message to the EU. This has a lot to do with the fact more than 4,000 people have drowned in the Aegean since January 2015, resorting to more dangerous and desperate crossings to evade the authorities. As any experienced volunteer will tell you, the authorities deploy incredible violence to stop these boats.
Such accounts are ubiquitous amongst refugee communities, though they are often afraid to report it to the authorities and those that do are invariably ignored. Yonous Muhammadi, president of the Greek Forum of Refugees, put it plainly in our interview: “We have evidence of these things,” he said, referring to violence and illegal pushbacks on both sides of the Greek-Turkish border. “The problem is, they say, when we as refugees are speaking it is ‘not so credible.’”
So it is the independent volunteers who bear witness to this brutal and secret history: the capsizings, the cutting of fuel lines, firing live ammunition and even electrocuting passengers. Human Rights Watch (HRW) had started publishing similar reports long before the EU deal was finalised, but their alarm bells were met with silence from politicians.
When I was in Lesvos, one young refugee from Damascus recounted how his boat was repeatedly rammed by the Turkish coastguard. “Many people fell in the water and drowned,” he said, staring hard at the sea. “I don’t know how many, but they beat us, one, two, three times. They have no feeling.” He spoke on condition of anonymity, ultimately expecting to be deported back to Turkey himself. He told me the boat was carrying 67 people, with twenty infants. “Only nine of us reached Lesvos… I don’t know why they do it.”
“The world continues to see Turkish border police open fire on human beings, including children, clearly fleeing from Islamic State and the Syrian regime, so forcing people back to Turkey cannot be considered a reasonable solution to the crisis,” adds independent human rights consultant, Ashley Anderson. “It has a strong financial incentive to turn a blind eye to smuggling operations and a long-term political interest in stopping migration on behalf of the EU. It’s like a dog chasing its own tail.”
Turkey certainly has a strong incentive to stop the boats at all costs; the EU deal depended on it. Ankara wanted the EU to relax visa requirements for Turkish citizens and got £4.6 billion to maintain its refugee camps and secure its borders. In exchange, the Erdoğan administration has been building fences, deploying water cannon and upgrading its surveillance systems. Even so, both fighters and weapons are known to routinely cross the border, parts of which periodically fall under the control of armed militants. Meanwhile, a senior researcher from Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned Turkey’s border closures for “forcing pregnant women, children, the elderly, the sick and the injured to run the gantlet of Turkish border officials to escape the horrors of Syria’s war.”
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 percent of Syrians in the country are in line for work permits, few refugee children find a place in school and 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 this one – 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 Torbali, where “there were more than 2000 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 Torbali camps were closed due to “too much publicity and too much help [from volunteers].” Camps are now even being built on the Syrian side of the border, within the warzone itself. Tens of thousands of Syrians are trapped on the wrong side of the line, begging to be let into their ‘safe third country’.
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 into the country. Given the violence on the border, this alone exposes the insanity of EU claims that Turkey is a safe route for refugees.
In April, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 16 Syrian refugees, including three children, had been shot dead at the border. Picked up by the media, the story amplified the alarm bells frontline volunteers and refugees had been ringing for months. As far back as November 2014, Amnesty International was reporting that Syrian refugees were being abused, threatened and killed by Turkish authorities.
More recently, HRW and Amnesty International have reported that Turkey has begun systematically ejecting refugees by the hundred back into Syria, including unaccompanied children. Turkey denies the allegations, which amount to a systematic violation of international human rights law, but many report being beaten or detained them before pushing them back into the warzone they came from. In one documented case following a fire at the Süleymanşah 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’.
No official investigation has been called and the EU deal rolls ahead regardless. Erdoğan is determined to present Turkey as a strong candidate for EU membership. That means projecting strength and competence in ‘managing’ the 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 that. 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.”
With Friends Like These…
Far from providing safe refuge, Turkey has been escalating border control efforts since attempted crossings skyrocketed in June 2015. Within the next few weeks, Islamic State took credit for a bombing in Suruç that killed 33 people, mostly members of socialist groups. Since then, the Erdoğan administration has pushed for tighter border controls on counter-terrorism grounds. But many Turks held the government responsible for security failures. A spokesperson for the progressive People’s Democratic Party (HDP) went so far as to say the bombing could not have taken place without active assistance from the Turkish state. Similar concerns were raised again in October when a bombing that killed 95 people at a leftist peace rally in Ankara and witnesses and bereaved relatives accused the government of failing to provide any security for the event. There are even reports of police blocking ambulance access and tear gassing survivors.
While waging a cold war against progressive forces in Turkey, Erdoğan maintains a civil war against the Kurdish minority, whose leftist militants have been the most courageous and effective fighters against advancing ISIS forces. The Turkish state condemns them as ‘terrorists’ – but it was the pre-dominantly Kurdish forces of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and Democratic Union Party (YPG) that rescued thousands of Yazidi civilians from ISIS in 2014, fought to protect Christian communities in Syria and have renounced all violence against civilians – which is more than we can say for the ruling government.
To weaken the ethnic Kurdish and progressive resistance, it has worked doggedly to disrupt collaboration between the PKK in Iraq and Democratic Union Party in Syria, is crippling frontline resistance against ISIS, al-Nusra and other far-right Islamist groups throughout the region. By August 2015, the Kurdish forces of the YPG, having driven ISIS out of Kobani and Gire Spi, were about to push them back from their last Turkish border town, Jarablus: a crucial supply route for recruits and supplies. Many speculated this would trigger a domino-chain of catastrophic defeats for the terrorists. 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.
At this point, even establishment figures are calling for Turkey’s expulsion from NATO and as David Graeber writes, 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.
And that’s not all. Evidence is mounting that Turkey is doing much more for ISIS than turn a blind eye. Many refugees fleeing their tyranny and brutality are convinced that the Turkish government actually supports the very terrorists they need asylum from. In an open letter to Ban-Ki Moon, Syria’s UN envoy Bashar al-Ja’afrari accused the Erdoğan administration of facilitating the crossing of armed terrorists from Turkey into Syria, supplying weapons and involvement in the “smuggling of stolen Syrian oil by ISIS into Turkey.”
It is only right to be critical of the source, but I was in Lesvos months beforehand hearing the same eye-witness reports from refugees. They report seeing Turkish soldiers giving military and medical aid to Islamist militants. ISIS commanders have publicly stated 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, compiled an extensive research paper on Turkish state support for ISIS. It not only corroborates refugees’ accounts but indicates Turkey also provides military and recruitment training, and references leaked audio tapes that appear to show the head of of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation conspiring to falsify a pretext for Turkey to go to go to war in Syria:“If need be, I’ll send four men into Syria. I’ll formulate a reason to go to war by shooting eight rockets back into Turkey; I’ll have them attack the Tomb of Suleiman Shah.”
The paper also documents Turkish forces fighting side by side with ISIS in the battle for Kobani. Meanwhile, in an interview with investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, a former US intelligence official said: “We knew there were some in the Turkish government who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria…”
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 short-sighted and unfeasible, it’s also definitively 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.
On paper, the deal is supposed to secure Turkey both as a safe haven and a border guard for Fortress Europe. Clearly, the Erdoğan administration is failing – was always going to fail – on both fronts. As one Iraqi refugee eloquently put it: “Turkey helps ISIS and fights Europe’s Migrant War – how can it be safe for us?” Which begs the question: why cut the deal?
The distinctly European notion that enough walls and enough violence can fortify Europe against the refugee crisis reflects the serious moral and intellectual inadequacy of our policymakers. Refugees fleeing these brutal conflicts will not simply ‘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 – even if the road is longer and more hazardous. Crossings from North Africa to Italy are already soaring to over 16,000 so far this year. 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 the deal remains intact.
So as a solution to the crisis, the deal was doomed from the outset. It won’t stop people trying to make it to Europe. Human rights groups and international authorities are up in arms. All parties maintain serious reservations about its feasibility. And it’s been made in brazen disregard for the fact that Turkey is on the other side of this war, defiantly supporting the region’s most barbaric terrorist groups. But what it is an intelligent strategy for, is the relocation their struggle out of sight.
Belgian migration minister Yiannis Mouzalas famously said “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 the treatment of men, women and children like animals and an international solidarity movement blossomed.
But under a corrupt and repressive regime, it’s not so easy for the world to 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 it 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.
Thanks go to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for their exemplary work on this subject. Thanks too, to all the refugees and volunteers who continue to share their experiences with me. Your courage inspires me every day.