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The Turkey-EU migration agreement was effective. No longer

Turkey's role as a transition zone for refugees attempting to get to Europe is under severe strain as the numbers rise, the costs spiral and its own economic and social woes mount
Syrian refugees wait to board a bus in Istanbul, as they head to the border villages in Edirne province on 28 February 2020 (AFP)
Syrian refugees wait to board a bus in Istanbul as they head to the border villages in Edirne province on 28 February 2020 (AFP)

Currently hosting the largest refugee population in the world, Turkey plays a key role in regulating illegal migration to the European Union.

Turkey's approximately four million refugees come mainly from war-torn countries or countries with fragile states in and around the eastern Mediterranean, the majority consisting of 3.6 million people from Syria.

According to official numbers, there are also 129.200 Afghan, 125.000 asylum seekers, and 4200 refugees, 167,325 Iraqis (162,700 asylum seekers, 4565 refugees), and 24,300 Iranian asylum seekers. A considerable Somalian population is also rising in big cities. 

The EU saw the refugee crisis of 2015 - when over 850,000 crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece - as a threat to its own security and stability

It was clear that the EU saw the refugee crisis of 2015 - when over 911.000 refugees, mainly Syrians, crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece and other routes to the EU to seek asylum on EU soil - as a threat to its own security and stability.

Named by Frontex (European Border and Coast Guard Agency) as the key eastern Mediterranean route for illegal migration, the crossings became a major strategic issue for EU member states. At this point, Europe's political elite opted for a pragmatic preventive strategy and sought to coordinate with the Turkish AKP (Justice and Development) government to try and curb the migratory influx.

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On 18 March 2016, the two sides signed a statement, stipulating that all migrants without asylum status would be sent back to Turkey from Greece.

In addition, for every Syrian citizen sent back, one Syrian registered in a refugee camp in Turkey would be resettled in the European Union. The agreement also launched the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey, designed to "ensure that the needs of refugees and host communities in Turkey were addressed in a comprehensive and coordinated manner". Accordingly, €6bn would be transferred to Turkey, which in return would curtail the crossings and look after the refugees for an undetermined period.

A success for the EU

The agreement proved effective in cutting down the number of refugees travelling through the eastern Mediterranean route. While 885,386 people arrived in Greece in 2015 and 182,227 in 2016 (mostly before the agreement kicked in), those numbers dropped to 42,319 in 2017 and continued to decline in most years since then. By 2021, only 15,800 refugees made the crossing. 

Also, 30,184 Syrians from Turkey were resettled in the EU. So far, €3bn has been allocated to Turkey, within the framework of the emergency social safety net. The EU has also agreed to gradually release the second tranche of €3bn. The agreement also came at a good time for a Turkish government that was facing a big financial burden while hosting the refugees.

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Yet, the action plan did not end the crisis. It merely transformed the challenges for interested parties.

For Ankara, the financial input from the EU remains essential, but it is not sufficient to be able to manage the crisis effectively.

Firstly, Turkey claims that the cost of the refugees has amounted to €32bn, far beyond the €6bn promised by the EU.

Secondly, Ankara has repeatedly complained about delays in the transfer of these resources, as it is in immediate need of additional funds.

Thirdly, and most pressingly for the government, the arrival of 3.6 million Syrians has brought about the greatest demographic shift in Turkey since the 1923-24 "population exchange" with Greece, escalating domestic tensions.

'Temporary protection'

It is important to note that the Syrians in Turkey are not recognised as “refugees” but are under “temporary protection”. Only 50,000 of them live in refugee camps with secured access to welfare services. The majority are dispersed all over Turkey without official work permits. Over one million Syrians are employed in the informal economy, working for pay well under the labour market average, thus driving down wages and causing resentment among local communities.

Additionally, the Turkish economy is now facing increasingly serious economic challenges. Unemployment rose to 14 percent in 2021, up from 10 percent in 2016, when the migrant crisis was in full swing. This is coupled with a severe decline in GDP per capita from $11,000 in 2016 to $8,500 in 2020.

Turkish ultranationalist protesters shout slogans against demonstrators gathered to support refugees in Istanbul, 27 July 2019 (AFP)
Turkish ultranationalist protesters shout slogans against demonstrators gathered to support refugees in Istanbul, 27 July 2019 (AFP)

As economic conditions deteriorate, resentment against refugees grows, with several cases reported of Syrian refugees being murdered. The anti-refugee resentment has also at times led to attacks on shops and properties owned by Syrians and violent demonstrations.

Amid economic hardship and discontentment with government refugee policy expanding to 73 percent of the Turkish population, these resentments are likely to grow. 

Refugee movements around the eastern Mediterranean route are only likely to increase, with multiple humanitarian crises showing no sign of easing

Further, refugee movements around the eastern Mediterranean route are only likely to increase, with multiple humanitarian crises showing no sign of easing.

The conflict between the Ethiopian army and the Tigray Defence Forces has triggered the displacement of 2.5 million people. The decades-old civil war and violence in Somalia still force millions to flee. The civil war in South Sudan has displaced nearly four million people. In Darfur, the intercommunal violence has displaced around three million locals and radically degraded the living standards of the remaining 6.5 million.

When you consider the movement of Afghan refugees after the re-establishment of the Taliban regime, the ongoing violence in Syria, the emerging risk of sectarian violence in economically devastated Lebanon, and the threats to food security in East Africa and the Middle East, we will likely be seeing mass migration through the eastern Mediterranean routes for the imaginable future.


The trend becomes clearer when you look at the numbers. “Illegal” crossings through the eastern Mediterranean rose by 138 percent between February 2021 and February 2022, compared to an increase of eight percent in the western Mediterranean and a decrease of 12 percent on the central Mediterranean routes, in the same period

The EU is currently facing a sudden and immense movement of refugees as millions of Ukrainians flee the Russian assault. In the middle term, mobilising its economic and political capabilities, the EU can manage this influx, increasing its dependence on Turkey to control additional movements.

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Turkey, for its part, will remain a transition zone for further refugees. It would therefore be beneficial for it to cooperate with the EU in configuring refuge movements. Such cooperation can only facilitate future geopolitical rapprochement between Turkey and the EU.

Yet, given the current domestic situation in Turkey, the refugee crisis is unsustainable in the long term.

The refugees, combined with the country's economic hardships, will be the hottest topic leading up to next year's elections. The unmanageable social and economic costs of the current refugee situation could see a host of anti-refugee policies.

Recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reconfirmed Ankara's pro-refugee position, but the Turkish government needs to manage the mentioned risks with concrete actions.

This may entail the EU going beyond the “preventive strategy” and cooperating with the AKP government and providing new economic opportunities and political support. Or by working together to alleviate the humanitarian crisis around the eastern Mediterranean. 

The nature of the relationship between the AKP and the EU makes this scenario unlikely, and the handling of refugees will likely continue to be a source of contention between Europe and Turkey for the foreseeable future.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Ozan Serdaroglu, PhD, is an Associated Research Fellow with the ISDP (Institute for Security and Development Policy). Currently he is running Levant Insights Consulting, offering political risk and geostrategic consulting services regarding the Eastern Mediterranean region.
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