The deal on migrants which the European Union struck with Turkey last spring is looking increasingly fragile, as both partners lack the political will to carry the deal through, one of the architects of the plan has said.
The deal offered Turkey €3 billion in funding in return for stemming the flow of migrants into Europe. In addition, migrants who didn’t meet the criteria for claiming asylum would be returned from Greece to Turkey in exchange for a genuine asylum seeker being offered a place within the EU.
But although the rate of flow has been stemmed, a recent report by the think tank the European Stability Initiative (ESI), whose director Gerald Knaus was one of the primary architects of the deal, warns that European leaders are being dangerously optimistic about the plan as it is playing out in practice.
The report slams the European Commission’s recent update on the implementation of the programme, entitled the September Report, calling it a “disturbing document, reminiscent of the irrational optimism of Voltaire’s Pangloss […] who believes that all is always for the best.”
It continues: “The report makes no effort to warn EU member states of looming dangers. It is full of reassuring statements: ‘Despite challenging circumstances, the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement has continued to deepen and to accelerate.’ But the facts and figures provided in the report, as well as those omitted, do not back up this claim.”
The ESI points to three sets of statistics which prove the programme to be in jeopardy.
Firstly, although the daily rate of arrival of migrants on the Greek islands was cut dramatically from more than 1,100 in the first half of March to 333 in the second half of that month, and fell to a low of just 47 a day in May, numbers are now once again creeping up to over 100 a day.
Secondly, the number of migrants on each of the main Greek islands far exceeds the capacity of those islands to accommodate them. On Lesvos, where the majority of the migrants are camped, there is capacity for 3,500 migrants but nearly 6,000 are ensconced there. Similarly, Chios has a capacity for 1,100 migrants but is actually playing host to nearly 3,900. And Rhodes doesn’t have the capacity for any migrants at all, yet 222 migrants are living there.
Thirdly, in total, only 578 migrants have actually been returned to Turkey. Most of those left voluntarily.
The deal was supposed to speed up the rate at which migrants’ claims were processed in Greece, but instead the system has ground almost to a standstill. Before the deal, local officials were processing 80 cases a month. In September, just 35 cases were handled, Politico has reported.
In addition, migrants have been told that they won’t be deported if they have an asylum claim pending, leading to thousands of migrants filing a claim. And although the Greek Parliament officially considers Turkey to be a “safe third country”, which would allow the return of those found to be asylum seekers, asylum officials in the local courts are refusing to recognise it as such.
There are 14,000 migrants on the Aegean Islands, many of whom are growing restless. Last month a group of migrants burned down a major migrant camp on Lesvos in protest at the delays in processing their cases.
But while island officials consider relocating the migrants to the mainland, the rest of Europe is pushing back against that idea, fearful that the migrants will simply head north and test the newly reinforced borders along the Balkan route.
“A failure of the deal would have serious consequences for Greece and would be a problem for the Western Balkans,” Knaus said.
He added: “But it would also be a problem for Merkel, the Dutch and others who face election campaigns next year.”