Opinion & Analysis

Why migration agreements undermine the protection of #Refugees

In 2016, the EU and Turkey implemented an agreement aimed at reducing irregular migration to the EU. This deal, which had its seventh anniversary on 18 March this year, has served as a blueprint for further migration agreements between countries of destination and countries of origin or transit. However, from both an ethical and practical perspective, these agreements remain controversial. In the second in a series of two articles, Daniela Roxana Movileanu sets out the case against migration agreements – for the opposite perspective, see the first article in the series.

Scholars like to say that “migration policies fail”, and migration agreements are a good example. In principle, fair and transparent agreements could facilitate legal migration and dignified returns. But we cannot ignore the empirical reality: existing agreements are not fair and transparent, and the obsession of governments with returns ends up legitimising the use of coercion on both migrants and third countries.

It is questionable whether migration agreements can be reached that are not premised on a short-sighted logic of political profitability. As long as governments do not take concrete actions to address the structural drivers of migration – not least conflict in origin countries, labour market demand in destination countries, and wealth inequalities – agreements will fail to reduce irregular migration and undermine the right to seek refuge.

Political fabrications

The notion that the EU has a high number of rejected asylum seekers that need to be returned is a political fabrication. The Commission and member states have been accused of misusing data to exaggerate the need for returns. Furthermore, the number of rejected asylum seekers largely depends on how restrictive an asylum system is – it is no coincidence that asylum recognition rates vary widely across the EU despite the fact that all member states are supposed to use the same criteria to decide who has a right to protection. The fairer a country’s asylum system, the fewer the people in need of return.

But let’s assume that migration agreements are the way to go. Have they succeeded in reducing irregular migration? No. The idea – so popular among EU leaders – that closer (asymmetrical) cooperation with third countries can increase return rates, deter people from migrating, and build trust in the EU’s migration system is, simply put, wrong. Scholars have found such agreements to lead, at best, to nothing but a temporary increase in return rates.

The EU-Turkey Statement is a case in point. The EU promised to resettle one Syrian refugee for each rejected asylum seeker returned to Turkey (the “1-to1 Resettlement Scheme”). Yet, between 2016 and 2020 the EU only resettled around 28,000 Syrian refugees, against a cap of 72,000 resettlements per year, and carried out 2,024 returns, against a total of 54,655 rejected asylum applications. Neither Turkey nor migrants have an interest in cooperating to increase these numbers.

One should be sceptical even of the purported merits – fewer arrivals and better protection in third countries – often attributed to these agreements. Ever since 2016, scholars have urged caution in drawing a causal link between the EU-Turkey Statement and the decrease in arrivals to Greece. Indeed, such policies often lead to a “substitution effect” instead of actually reducing numbers, meaning that they shift migration towards more dangerous routes and discourage circular migration.

Scholars have also been critical of the situation of Syrian refugees in Turkey, showing that gaps between the local and refugee population persist when it comes to employment, livelihoods, healthcare, and education. But besides living conditions, how can Turkey be considered safe when 20,802 Turkish nationals applied for asylum in Germany in 2022?

Human rights implications

While the effect of return agreements on migration numbers is uncertain, their human rights consequences are far more certain. The list of human rights implications is long, and I can only give some highlights here.

Greece reacted to stagnant return rates by increasing pushbacks at sea. The lucky ones who made it to Greece have been stuck in overcrowded, prison-like reception centres (which hosted a record number of 42,800 people in 2020 against a capacity of 6,200), even after accidents like the 2020 fire that destroyed the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos.

This happens because asylum applications are meant to be processed at entry points so that those rejected can be returned to Turkey. What’s more, in 2020 some lost their lives or were wounded at the Greek-Turkish border when Erdogan threatened to pull out of the Statement. Desperate to be “tougher” on immigration, the following year Greece made its immigration legislation even stricter under the assumption that asylum seekers can seek protection in Turkey.

EU leaders may say that the EU is not doing enough to increase returns, but in fact it is doing too much. The current situation, where governments forfeit their duty to protect while using undocumented migrants to fill labour shortages, may be politically profitable, but it is ethically and practically deleterious.

A credible migration system is one in which all parties, including third countries and migrants, want to cooperate. Such a system requires more focus on fair asylum procedures, legal channels for both economic and humanitarian migration, and dignified return procedures. This solution may seem politically unfeasible, but it could become so if we all started pointing to the pitfalls of the “more returns” rhetoric and shifting public attention towards the need for fair asylum procedures and legal channels.

The way forward

Whether or not migration agreements can live up to what they promise, both in practical and ethical terms, remains a point of contention. However, what is clear is that this debate is much more productive than a debate on whether borders should be fortified or simply abolished altogether.

Neither of these options offers a sustainable solution to marrying the reality of irregular migration with refugees’ human rights and European public opinion. Instead, our current migration and asylum systems need reform, more regular pathways of migration need to be created, and our efforts to preserve the spirit of the Geneva Convention must continue. For now, the jury remains out on what the best approach for achieving this is.

This article is the second in a series of two articles – for the case in favour of migration agreements, see the first article in the series.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: European Union


About the author

Daniela Roxana Movileanu

Daniela Roxana Movileanu is a PhD Candidate in the LSE’s European Institute.

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