A Threat on Migration That May Prove to Be Empty
Posted by hkarner - 16. März 2017
Source: The New York Times
Migration through Turkey rose sharply that year, with 850,000 people leaving Turkey for Greece.
ISTANBUL — When Turkey and Europe reached an agreement a year ago this week to restrict migration to Greece, it was bad news for Abu Samir, a Syrian-Palestinian people-smuggler in Istanbul.
By late 2015, Abu Samir, a former house painter from Aleppo, had become a key cog in one of the largest Europe-bound migrations in history, sending thousands of refugees, most of them Syrians, to Greece and earning up to $4,000 on some days. But in the 12 months since Turkey’s pact with the European Union, his business has collapsed.
The problem: Too few refugees and too many border patrols.
As relations between Turkey and Europe plumbed new lows this week, fresh concerns were raised that smugglers like Abu Samir — a nom de guerre he uses for security reasons — would soon be back in business. In addition to accusing European governments of Nazism for refusing to allow referendum rallies in support of a new Turkish Constitution in their countries, the Turkish government has hinted that it might scrap the year-old accord to restrict migration flows through Turkey in exchange for financial aid from the European Union.
“We will review the migrant deal if necessary,” Numan Kurtulmus, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, warned on Monday night. In Europe, the announcement prompted fears of a repeat of the 2015 migration surges that saw 850,000 people leave Turkey for Greece in a single year. In Turkey, it gave Abu Samir renewed hope of better business.
“I expect waves of people,” he said in a video call on Tuesday night. “The business will come back to the way it was, and maybe better.”
But can President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey turn on the migration tap as easily as Abu Samir thinks? As analysts have acknowledged, the dynamics that led to the 2015 migration have changed. As a result, it may no longer be in Turkey’s power — or its interest — to influence migration flows in the way that it did a year ago.
Since the European Union first promised Turkey several billion euros for its help in stemming migration to Europe in late 2015, the number of migrants leaving Turkish shores had fallen to under 1,500 in January from nearly 70,000 in January 2016. There are several reasons for this drastic decrease, but one partial explanation lies in a crackdown on the Turkish smuggling industry that began over the 2015-16 winter. As Abu Samir said on Tuesday, “Turkey wanted to show that they were stopping the smugglers.”
Migration through Turkey rose sharply in 2015, not just because of the impunity with which smugglers could operate here, but also because it was comparatively easy for Syrian refugees to reach Turkey from Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. At the time, the Turkish-Syrian land border was easier to cross, and Syrians in Amman and Beirut could fly to Turkey without needing to apply for a visa.
Nearly two years later, that is no longer the case. Syrians now need visas to enter Turkey, while the land border is much better protected. In theory, Mr. Erdogan could lift both restrictions. But analysts said this was unlikely as it would make Turkey even more vulnerable to infiltration by fighters from the Islamic State extremist group and risk angering nationalist Turks in the middle of a tightly fought ballot referendum that would give Mr. Erdogan broad new powers.
It would also mark “an incredible divergence” from one aim of Turkey’s continuing military campaign inside Syria, “which is to create a safe space for refugees to move back” into Syria, said Aaron Stein, a Turkey specialist at the Atlantic Council, a policy research group.
“This seems to me like an empty threat, and it’s about time Europe called Turkey on this,” Mr. Stein added.
Turkey nevertheless still already hosts the largest refugee population in the world, including more than 2.5 million Syrians. In theory, some of these could also take advantage of renewed impunity for smugglers and pay for a boat ride to Greece.
But the circumstances awaiting them there are now markedly worse than what their predecessors experienced in 2015. A humanitarian corridor that once ferried people from Greece to Germany via bus and train closed in March 2016.
This did not stop onward migration entirely. Over 25,000 still made it through the Balkans of their own accord last year, according to United Nations data, highlighting how it is usually possible to curb migration, yet far harder to end it entirely. But it did trap thousands of asylum seekers in squalid conditions inside Greece, many of them confined to detention centers on islands in the Aegean Sea.
“It is a situation of absolute precarity,” said Dimitris Christopoulos, the president of the International Federation for Human Rights, an umbrella body for 178 rights groups. “It sends a message to migrants: Do not come.”
Whatever Mr. Erdogan does, the prospect of traveling to Greece is less appealing to Syrian refugees than it once was, said Heaven Crawley, a migration expert at Coventry University and the co-author of wide-ranging research on the motivations of Europe-bound migrants.
“There is no shortage of people in Turkey who could move. It’s just that they don’t see there’s much point in moving,” Professor Crawley said. “They don’t see the point of being stuck in Greece.”
Abu Samir, however, still holds out hope. In 2015, the sheer number of migrants was what forced European countries like Macedonia to establish the Balkans corridor in the first place. Two years later, the smuggler still will not rule out a repeat of that bonanza.
If a new wave of migration to Greece does materialize, Abu Samir said, and “if enough numbers arrived in Greece, then neither Greece and Macedonia will be able to hold them, so they’ll have to open their borders.”