The EU-Turkey Deal: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Turkey Camp
Syrian Refugee Camp on the Turkish Border

In 2015 1.2 million people entered Europe from countries as disparate as Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. With further displacement and migration forecast for the coming years, an existential crisis is now threatening the very foundations of the European Project. In a mood of desperation and political expediency negotiations to curb migrant numbers have been accelerated with Turkey, culminating in a deal that now faces severe legal, ethical and practical difficulties.

In a nutshell, the agreement attempts to mitigate refugee flows that may otherwise overwhelm frontier European states, relocating the exigencies of asylum processing back to the Middle East and providing space to devise a more tolerable, long term solution. In principle, it also aims to undercut and degrade the mechanics of an extensive trafficking economy now proliferating across the Mediterranean. The commercialisation of people smuggling has exacerbated the number of refugees travelling, and sometimes even perishing, along sea routes. By adopting a hardline stance on ‘boat-people’ and diminishing the pull factor of assumed European altruism, people trafficking will, in theory, devolve into a high-risk low-reward enterprise that depresses demand and channels refugees towards more easily regulated outlets.

Under the auspices of a ‘one in one out’ system, any ‘new irregular migrants’ arriving in Greece after March would be deported to Turkey and relegated to the back of the queue of those seeking asylum. In return, EU member states are obligated to resettle properly processed Syrian refugees from Turkey and expedite visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals wishing to visit Europe.

There are obvious benefits to this approach. On a human level, the sharp fall in individuals traveling to Greece in the aftermath of the deal will hopefully translate into lower mortality rates for those refugees seeking entry into Europe. It also relieves pressure on Frontex, the underfunded European border management agency, and allocates new resources for efficient processing schemes. In the face of perpetually gridlocked EU institutions, the political intransigence of Eastern European governments, rising right wing populism and the resurrection of internal border controls, it provides a palatable alternative for European publics that may be able to preserve the cosmopolitan values of Schengen while also delivering immediate results. Perhaps most importantly, the agreement alleviates the burden on Ankara. Supplemented by an aid package of €3 billion earmarked for improving ‘the lives of refugees’ in the region, and a series of concessions with regard to Turkey’s prospective membership in the EU, it is hoped the agreement will deliver desperately needed investment to fund accommodation, education initiatives and welfare services for the two million refugees in Turkey itself.

However, despite the humanitarian rhetoric espoused by its proponents, the broader implications of the deal remain a cause for concern. Any claims suggesting the authoritarian tendencies of the Erdogan regime may be ameliorated by visa-liberalisation and closer political cooperation between Turkey and the EU are spurious to say the least. As negotiations concluded, the government has shown no sign of slowing its crackdown on independent journalism, seizing control of the national newspaper Zaman in March and tightening its grip over civil society. The fact these excesses hardly elicited any reaction from the West, and that German authorities are now considering the prosecution of a local comedian for ‘insulting’ Erdogan, allude to the leverage Turkey currently enjoys. As such, by colluding with autocrats the EU may paradoxically be compromising its liberal values on another front, namely free speech and free expression.

Crucially, there are also significant legal and practical issues that need to be considered. Human rights organisations have cited grave problems with the agreement. They argue it not only contravenes international law and its underlying humanitarian norms but also fails to exert pressure on Turkey to improve the protection it offers Syrian refugees. Amnesty International (AI) in particular maintains “the EU is…incentivising the opposite’, referencing a concerted effort by local Turkish authorities to expel asylum seekers back into Syria and close the Southern border to stop any further influx. While the ‘one in one out’ system explicitly circumvents controversy over blanket returns by certifying a right for refugees to make individual asylum claims, there is no doubt that the testimonies collected by AI deliver a damning indictment of Turkish migratory policy. It also undermines the fallacy that any claimants deemed irregular by the EU are being deported to a ‘safe third country’. To assume Turkey is safe is to ignore the Kurdish insurgency waging in its Eastern periphery and the horrendous conditions refugees are currently living under. Non-Syrians face the threat of further extradition back to dangerous home nations under the conditions of independent bilateral agreements between Ankara and, for example, the Afghan government. For those remaining in Turkey, many lack work permits and are forced into unregulated black market jobs for little to no salary. Perhaps more worryingly, 400,000 of 700,000 school age Syrian children aren’t receiving any formal education. There is simply no opportunity for integration, leading to societal tensions that will exponentially grow as the crisis gets worse. Unless this trend is radically altered, the EU’s refugee policy as it stands today is giving rise to a disenfranchised, socio-economically marginalised and uneducated ‘lost generation’ completely at odds with the humanitarian virtues the organisation claims to champion. On a practical and moral level this is untenable.

Europe is therefore between a rock and a hard place. Its migratory infrastructure cannot manage a crisis of this magnitude and it does not have the institutional or democratic flexibility to deliver an equitable scheme for effectively distributing shares of refugees across its membership. But as Kenan Malik, a London based lecturer and broadcaster, argues, by ratifying this deal with Turkey the EU seems to be regressing back to its antiquated mentality of the 1990s; ‘criminalising’ migrants, militarising its external borders and paying peripheral states to ‘operate as immigration police’. Outsourcing the problem and pretending it isn’t there is not a viable option. There needs to be a substantive, systemic transformation in how Europe both conceptualises and engages with the refugee problem. Anything short of this is simply not sustainable and the EU risks having its moral authority irreversibly damaged.

Islamic State Infiltrates Somalia

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AMISOM Forces Re-enter Kismayo

Somalia has re-entered the international spotlight in recent weeks amidst growing alarm over a new, active Islamic State (IS) presence in East Africa. In an official statement circulated on social media, the group claimed responsibility for the detonation of a bomb (an IED) in the outskirts of Mogadishu, allegedly marking its first Somali-based attack. While independent verification is ongoing, some claim that this may mark a significant juncture for regional stability. Commentators have not only alluded to a growth in local IS sympathies but have raised concerns over the prospect of rifts within local Jihadism that could precipitate a new wave of violence.

Historically, IS has struggled to find traction in Somalia, in contrast to its progress elsewhere on the continent. Having integrated a broad constellation of African franchises, ranging from the Nigerian based Boko Haram to Ansar Beit al Maqdis in the Sinai, and establishing a series of enclaves along the Libyan coast, the group has efficiently co-opted local insurgencies and expanded its global footprint. However, this momentum seems to have stalled with al-Shabaab. Despite courting Sheikh Abu Ubaidah, IS has been consistently repudiated by Shabaab’s media branch, al Kataib, which continues to question the Caliphate’s legitimacy and long term viability. Instead the group moved aggressively to monopolise Jihadism in East Africa, reaffirming its affiliation with al-Qaeda and preemptively suppressing any dissent through a series of internal purges. Indeed, after launching a relatively successful resurgence throughout the Somali hinterland over the course of 2015,  Shabaab seemed to have re-consolidated its domestic position.

However, the Mogadishu bomb attack claimed by IS has somewhat challenged these assumptions, indicating a new geo-strategic reality beyond the Shabaab-centric orthodoxy where new actors are becoming increasingly active. This has been compounded by a number of splinter groups recently seceding from, and now competing against, the parent insurgency. Contingents led by British-Somali Abdul Nadir Mumin, now operating in Galdung, and a new transnational amalgam calling itself Jahba East Africa, have started siphoning local support from Shabaab denouncing it as a “psychological and physical prison”.

Reports have also surfaced describing possible linkages between IS and planned biological attacks in Kenya, suggesting the group may be experiencing a local resurgence. IS seems to appeal to disenchanted militias from Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and these new affiliates are not only cultivating a broader IS constituency across East Africa but re-conceptualising regional Jihad as a multipolar struggle. This therefore raises important questions as to how an increasingly diverse insurgency will impact AMISOM (the African Union Mission in Somalia) and international development efforts, as well as the degree to which al Shabaab may become embroiled in internecine conflict and the implications such a confrontation may have for the broader competition between IS and al Qaeda.

Nevertheless, while there are concerns that need to be addressed, it can also be argued these are relatively superficial issues with a tendency to detract from the key challenges now facing Somalia and East Africa. Aside from the fact that the rumours of a possible biological attack in Kenya remain unverified, and AMISOM  has dismissed any IS involvement in the Mogadishu bombing, the broader effort to map shifting allegiances between various militants has limited utility. As Bronwyn Bruton, the deputy director of the African Center at the Atlantic Council aptly suggests the “relationships (between Jihadist groups) are fluid and not all that meaningful from an operational standpoint”. While the top leadership may be ideologically invested in particular factions, the affiliation of individual fighters is largely determined by “who (is) paying them that day”.

This may seem like a sweeping generalisation, but these are transient dynamics that are largely defined by small differences in politics, personality and economic opportunity. In reality the threat of IS and al Shabaab originate from the same drivers. The international community should therefore focus on delivering comprehensive solutions to address the underlying causes of radicalisation, rather than analysing nominal differences between the radical actors themselves.