Europe’s latest, desperate plan to stop the uncontrolled flow of refugees across its borders prompted Austria’s interior minister to ask, “Are we throwing our values overboard?” The simplest answer is yes: A draft bargain struck by the European Union with Turkey last week could lead to the deportation of thousands of asylum seekers in violation of international treaties, while empowering increasingly autocratic Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Unfortunately, the most likely alternatives to the plan would do even more violence to human rights principles. In that sense, the Turkish deal is a last-ditch effort by the continent’s beleaguered pro-humanitarian forces, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Its goal is to stop the refugee flows while still providing a European harbor to some of Syria’s displaced civilians. If it fails, the winners will be the parties of intolerance that have risen as the crisis has swelled.
Unfortunately, that looks like an all-too-possible outcome. Merkel is counting on Erdogan to interdict the smugglers transporting refugees across the Aegean Sea to Greece and take back any who manage to arrive there. In exchange, the European Union will provide $6.6 billion in subsidies for Turkey’s handling of the more than 2 million refugees on its soil, move to grant Turks visa-free access to the union’s 28 states by June, and reopen negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Though the third provision is mostly symbolic, it willfully overlooks Erdogan’s accelerating steps to consolidate a Putinesque dictatorship, including the takeover of Turkey’s largest newspaper days before the deal was reached.
The bargain provides that the European Union would accept, from Turkish refugee camps, a number of asylum seekers equal to those returned from the continent to Turkey. Ideally, that could end the smuggling business — which has led to the deaths of hundreds of refugees already this year — while providing a safe home to thousands through an orderly process.
The potential difficulties, however, are legion. Human rights groups say the summary deportation of refugees to Turkey would violate the Geneva refugee convention, since Turkey does not observe its provisions for Syrians on its territory. A number of EU governments are refusing to accept any refugees from Turkey; a plan adopted last year for the distribution of 160,000 arrivals around the union has so far settled fewer than 1,000. Similarly, the promise of visa-free travel for Turks is likely to face stiff resistance, even if Turkey meets the 72 preconditions set out by Brussels.
Merkel’s European opponents have already succeeded, over her objections, in using fences and other border controls to close the land corridor used by refugees to travel through the Balkans, trapping thousands in Greece. Her opponents now will aim to stop Syrians from leaving Turkey without either granting some European asylum or removing travel barriers for Turks. So the question Europe faces is not whether the refugee crisis will force it to compromise its values; it is whether it will manage to preserve even a curtailed humanitarian response.
Editorial by The Washington Post