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March 25th, 2020

Greek-Turkish border crisis: Refugees are paying the price for the EU’s failure to reform its asylum system

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Team

March 25th, 2020

Greek-Turkish border crisis: Refugees are paying the price for the EU’s failure to reform its asylum system

0 comments | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

At the end of February, Turkey announced that it would no longer enforce a deal reached with the EU in 2016 to block irregular migration routes into Greece. Nicoletta Enria and Sarah Gerwens write that the resulting crisis at the Greek-Turkish border highlights the failure of the EU to effectively reform its asylum system.

In late February, before COVID-19 began to spread across Europe, reports of renewed violence at the Greek-Turkish border were getting louder amid speculation that the previous deal between the EU and Turkey had died. Videos of Greek border guards shooting at a dinghy containing people seeking refuge in Greece – along with the 450 people trapped in a naval vessel in Lesbos forbidden to lodge asylum claims – sparked much international outrage and condemnation. Yet, with media attention declining, the violence at the border, diplomatic disagreements, policy impasse and human suffering persist. Meanwhile, the same Commission that has made promoting a ‘European way of life’ including the values of tolerance and justice a core priority has done little to address the breaches of European and international law occurring at the Union’s own borders.

On 27 February, Turkey’s President Erdoğan announced that he would ‘open the Greek-Turkish border’ which, under the 2016 EU-Turkey statement, he had been tasked to protect from irregular crossings. The resulting influx of asylum-seekers, migrants and refugees into Greece was met with violence at the borders, with Greek police using tear-gas, water cannons, and stun grenades. The violence at the border has been complemented by a war of words and the usual blame game amongst EU, Turkish and Greek actors. Facing an unprecedented global pandemic, and what the EU perceives as another potential migration ‘crisis’, Europe and its neighbourhood face an exceptionally difficult period. Here, we attempt to unpack the unfolding crisis with a focus on the positions of the EU, Greece, and Turkey, and try to answer the perennial question: how did we get here?

The EU

The crisis at the Greek-Turkish border has shed an unflattering light on the EU’s lack of successful reform of its Common European Asylum System (CEAS). Moreover, it has exposed a fundamental moral dilemma: that of promoting human rights whilst supporting repressive migration and asylum measures. In fact, rather than de-escalating the polarised debates on the topic, EU politicians loudly condemned Turkey while choosing to amplify their own military rhetoric. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen thanked Greece for acting as Europe’s shield, while the majority of member states acquiesced in the face of Greek border violence towards refugees since such actions ‘protected’ Europe’s external border. Von der Leyen has consequently scrambled to provide Greece with €700m (£609m) in EU funds, €350m of which is readily available to upgrade border infrastructure, and FRONTEX’s ‘rapid border intervention’.

The 2016 EU-Turkey statement was a statement of cooperation between European states and the Turkish government to manage the flow of refugees and migrants into the EU. It offered Turkey financial assistance, the promise of fast-tracked EU membership talks, and visa-free travel. In exchange, Ankara agreed to take back all irregular migrants who arrived on the Greek islands, to combat smuggling, and generally to prevent irregular crossings into Greece. The deal also introduced a one-for-one scheme – for every Syrian returned to Turkey from the Aegean islands, another – classified as vulnerable – would be resettled from Turkey to the EU.

Credit: aesthetics of crisis (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The deal made explicit the European approach to migration and asylum policy that openly digressed from EU and international refugee and human rights law. The EU’s response to the present crisis suggests a re-affirmation of this approach. No leader or EU institution has come out to explicitly condemn Greece’s suspension of asylum applications for one month and the immediate return of those ‘illegally’ entering Greece either to their country of origin or transit. Not only is there no legal basis in EU and international law for the suspension of asylum applications, but this also causes concerns for potential cases of non-refoulement, a fundamental principle in international law forbidding the return of asylum seekers to a country where they are in likely danger of persecution.

Reacting to the unfolding crisis, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson has given a first indication of how the EU will respond, with a handful of member states pledging to relocate 1,500 unaccompanied minors from Greece and the Commisson itself offering €2,000 to individuals in Greek refugee camps that volunteer to return to their home countries. Furthermore, von der Leyen claims the EU-Turkey deal will be revisited. So far, no new statement on the matter has been released. Instead, we expect that externalisation will remain the EU’s chosen policy avenue. Along with more meaningful, coordinated resettlement and responsibility sharing, the EU must stop straying away from its own and international human rights standards.


Greece, a country already under significant economic strain, has become further burdened with the gruesome job of being Fortress Europe’s gatekeeper. The EU-Turkey deal turned Greece’s already overstrained reception facilities into make-shift detention centres, making already poor conditions worse. By prolonging refugees’ legal, physical and psychological insecurity, the current crisis comes not as a surprise, rather, it should be viewed as the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Indeed, Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ new centre-right government maintains that they are merely defending Greece’s sovereign borders, proving that the violence currently raging at the border is not out of the ordinary but rather an amplification of the norm. Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants continue to live in untenable, overcrowded conditions with broken toilets and showers both in Greece and in Turkey, at a time when COVID-19 should make hygiene and the opportunity to practice social distancing a fundamental necessity and right. This all highlights that stable responsibility measures are increasingly of the utmost importance.


Turkey hosts the largest proportion of Syrian refugees: approximately 3.6 million people. It also serves as one of the key transit countries in many refugees’ routes towards Europe. As such, it has become a key actor in the EU’s migration management and asylum regime. In March 2016, Turkey and the EU, brought together by the increased influx of migrants and asylum seekers, agreed to the aforementioned EU-Turkey statement. Criticised by NGOs and human rights organisations, a key goal of the deal was to control and reduce the influx of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants from Turkey – and, for a time, it did.

Four years on, the situation has changed drastically. Migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers are once again heading towards Greece. Meanwhile, Erdoğan is comparing the Greek border forces with Nazis and declared the Greek-Turkish border ‘open’ for migrants. Turkey’s decision followed the death of several Turkish soldiers in Syria and highlighted the country’s argument that the EU had not sufficiently assisted Turkey nor resettled enough refugees, especially considering the increasing number of civilians fleeing Idlib.

In turn, Erdoğan has been accused of using refugees as pawns for his own political ends. These two critiques are not necessarily at odds. Turkey is hosting a high number of Syrian refugees, requiring significant social and economic resources. Refugees have become “political bargaining chips”, as Oxfam’s Florian Oel told the BBC. Moreover, the diplomatic power struggle extends beyond the EU dimension, and bilateral relations between Greece and Turkey are also conflictual. Their relationship is historically fraught, and Erdoğan has stoked tensions by calling the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that solidified the countries’ shared borders into question. Beyond territorial disputes, energy has emerged as another focal point of conflict, with the recent drilling dispute between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey the latest example. Refugees and migrants risk getting entangled in these various conflicts.

The EU-Turkey statement

The EU-Turkey statement bought the EU time and, in a climate of increasing xenophobia, placated concerned electorates across the continent. But the statement did not address the underlying issues. The plan was, ostensibly, to come up with a better solution until the next crisis invariably occurred. Now, the next crisis has arrived, but the EU asylum system remains the same fractured and inequitable one that broke down during the ‘long summer of migration’. The Dublin paradigm that determines which member state is responsible for processing asylum seekers as they arrive in the Union still singles out countries of first entry such as Greece.

Aware of these fundamental shortcomings, the Juncker Commission set out to reform CEAS. However, differences between southern border countries wanting increased solidarity, northern and central European member states calling for shared responsibility for asylum seekers once they have applied, and the Visegrád 4 wanting none of it proved irreconcilable. Upon taking office, von der Leyen announced a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, but little has emerged on what this pact will entail. This leaves border countries and asylum seekers alike to grapple with a failed system; a system whose weaknesses Erdoğan is currently exploiting.

The failure to reform CEAS and Europe’s subsequent dependence on the EU-Turkey statement relied on a manageable influx of migrants and asylum seekers into Turkey. In other words, it relied on the Syrian conflict subsiding. The opposite has happened. With the civil war now in its tenth year, recent fighting in the province of Idlib and the resulting humanitarian crisis has stoked fears of rapidly growing displacement.

Turkey’s own involvement in the region further complicates its response to the situation. Nonetheless, to address the displacement of Syrians, ultimately, means to end the Syrian civil war. Given the intractability of the conflict, a quick resolution is unlikely – and out of the EU’s control. Third countries such as Turkey or Libya, which have been recruited to aid the Union with its migration and asylum management, are also ultimately uncontrollable. The current situation highlights this. External partners cannot indefinitely cover for the EU’s internal policy impasse.

Protecting ‘the European way of life’?

The crisis at the Greek-Turkish border is a manufactured one. And like all manufactured crises, it could have been prevented. Most member states have long agreed that the European asylum system does not work, but this has not translated into sustainable reform. With attention directed towards COVID-19, the CEAS reform has slipped from the public and politicians’ minds; notwithstanding that a lack of adequate healthcare and hygiene provisions render people in refugee camps or camped out at the border particularly vulnerable to the virus. Beyond this, the current situation provides ample evidence that temporary and emergency measures, such as the EU-Turkey statement, do not hold up. Neither can the EU eternally externalise asylum management.

Placing the blame squarely on Greece or Turkey, therefore, misses the larger policy context: the EU-Turkey agreement was always meant to be a temporary solution, negotiated in a moment of crisis. This is no excuse for the human rights violations currently unfolding, but it should be a call to action for policymakers in Brussels and the member states to find agreement. Without a reform of the European asylum system, situations like the current one will continue to repeat, and border states such as Greece will once again be under particular strain.

Promoting ‘the European way of life’ means finding a workable compromise between member states, EU institutions, and Turkey that will hold up in times of crisis. The values and treaties that make up the said way of life also demand prioritising refugees’ rights over achieving efficiency and control. Addressing the situation at the Greek border cannot be an end in itself. Rather it should be a means to creating an asylum system that works for those most affected: refugees and asylum-seekers themselves.

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Note: This article gives the personal views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. The article is based on research conducted by the 89 Initiative’s Migration research programme, headed by Dr Natascha Zaun. 


About the authors

Nicoletta Enria
Nicoletta Enria is a Research Officer in Migration at the 89 Initiative, which is based at the LSE’s European Institute.

Sarah Gerwens
Sarah Gerwens is Head of Research at the 89 Initiative and a PhD candidate at the LSE’s European Institute.

About the author

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Posted In: EU Foreign Affairs | EU foreign affairs (including defence, development aid and trade) and the European neighbourhood | featured | LSE Comment | Nicoletta Enria | Politics | Sarah Gerwens

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