The refugee agreement between the European Union and Turkey marked its first anniversary this week as the diplomatic crisis between E.U. states and Ankara continues to oscillate out of control.
As Turkey’s constitutional referendum looms, top officials in Ankara have halted procedures to readmit refugees from Greece, symbolically cancelling the March 20 2016 agreement designed to curb the influx of refugees crossing the Aegean.
Although the Turkish leadership has made similar threats throughout the year, a “Plan B,” or a series of emergency mechanisms in Greece to deal with such an eventuality have failed to materialize. This raises the question: Why have key personalities in European corridors of power ignored such essential preparation?
One answer may lie in the fact that European governments have centered their efforts on other key issues such as Brexit, integration, terrorism and the rise of new nationalism over the last 12 months. They relied on the status quo that the E.U.-Turkey Statement offered as a pillar of stability.
Unwilling to disrupt this status quo, policymakers and analysts argued that the formalization of a Plan B would send a message of distrust to their Turkish counterparts.
European decision-makers continue to regard the agreement’s financial provisions – an increase of 3 billion euros ($3.25bn) in refugee aid to Turkey – as the deal-breaker. The potential loss of this aid, they falsely assume, would force Turkish politicians to err on the side of caution and maintain the agreement.
Yet the Ankara government has been publicly highlighting the slow implementation of the agreement and transfer of funds, thus enabling it to galvanize domestic public opinion and increase pressure on the E.U.
As a result, the E.U. last June accelerated the tendering process for aid projects under the deal and removed a cap on their marketing budgets, even though this type of pressure runs counter to E.U. mechanisms designed to prevent the misallocation of funds. This ultimately leads into the Turkish government’s long-term planning to reduce the influence of foreign NGOs operating in the country and place full control of social welfare programs in the remit of government bodies or state-run NGOs
As European governments remain in disagreement over the efficacy of a “Plan B” with the potential message of distrust this could send to Turkey, it seems they are unaware of the message it sends to its own citizens: the inability to enforce the social contract by failing to provide physical protection of the individual through collective security. This was clear during my four months of research interviewing government officials, mayors, NGOs, judicial experts, volunteers, police officers and refugees from camps in Vienna to towns on the Syria-Turkey border.
It is not only causing a dissonance between citizens and their governmental institutions, but also causing disruption within the official structures themselves.
In particular, public servants tasked with implementing the policies are losing faith in their superiors’ ability to design coherent strategies that take their “on-the-ground” needs and realities into consideration. This results in disillusionment, misinterpretation of orders or, in the worst cases, apathy among officials. As many government policies are de facto implemented by NGOs, such trends are also emerging among NGO staff in the field.
In Belgrade, for example, not all refugee arrivals are officially recorded, as police officers on patrol in the city have either been instructed not to register refugees or they no longer see a need for the procedure, as almost all refugees “disappear” to squats in suburbs and leave the city within a few hours.
Not only has this allowed new smuggling rings to flourish, it also leads to faulty data-gathering and transmission to more senior government departments, who then transmit this to intra-national governmental bodies. Similar scenarios in cities and towns along the Balkan route undermine efforts to understand how many refugees are in transit and, ultimately, how to allocate funding.
In Greece, where European governments continue to neglect the severity of living conditions in refugee camps, municipalities are under financial and political strain.
Mayors across Greece say the strong connection between them and their constituents continues to erode. This is felt most on the Greek islands where the constant fear of the fallout from the deal’s collapse is compounded by a nose-dive in tourism and the subsequent decline in revenue. Greek municipality representatives warn that, with no official Plan B, the islands could face a total system collapse caused by as little as 2,000 new arrivals on a single day.
E.U. leaders should make no mistake that if the agreement collapses, they can count on at least 60,000 refugees moving up through Greece toward border towns. This is in addition to the number who will cross from Turkey, which is difficult to estimate as many non-Syrian refugees and migrants are not officially registered there.
As official E.U. reports focus heavily on datasets and statistics that show there are clear declines in refugee arrivals, or that funds have been delegated, they marginalize long-term disruptions occurring out of plain sight. A vacuum has formed that is providing ample room for anti-establishment elements to sow the seeds of future disruptions.
Organized crime syndicates and radical religious (predominantly Islamic) or political movements are finding new recruits in the thousands of young, disillusioned and uneducated Muslim men stranded along the Balkan route. Additionally, refugees say that the camps are easily infiltrated by intelligence agencies from Syria, Iraq and Iran looking for wanted individuals or hoping to spread fear in refugee communities.
So while the deal has shown to be effective in achieving its primary goal – to reduce the flow of refugees and migrants crossing the Aegean – there is a disconnect between the reports that policymakers rely on and what implementing stakeholders experience on a daily basis. This leaves room for a marked decline in human security in camps and disillusionment by people implementing policies in their senior management. Ultimately, this is eroding the confidence between citizens and their governments.
With no Plan B, Europe will not be able to cope with a new mass movement of people.
This is an edited excerpt from “Potemkin’s Refugee Policy” published by the Liechtenstein Institute on Self Determination at Princeton University.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.
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