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Europe has a deal with Turkey, but migrants will keep coming

 IN A run-down building in the Tarlabasi district of Istanbul, 24-year-old Zehra, a refugee from Aleppo, lives in a tiny apartment with her husband, mother-in-law, and children. Her youngest, a little girl, was born just a month ago in a Turkish hospital—one of 70,000 Syrian babies born in Turkey since the civil war started in 2011, according to refugee agencies. She faces a precarious future. Zehra says they have received no government aid, and her husband can find only occasional work as a rubbish collector. Few Syrian children attend Turkish schools; instead they roam the streets of Turkish cities selling water or tissues. No wonder so many Syrians brave the short ocean crossing to Greece, hoping for a new life in Europe. Some 127,000 migrants arrived in Europe by sea in November, following on from over 200,000 in October.

At a summit in Brussels on November 29th, the European Union finalised an agreement with Turkey to try to reduce the flow. But the deal looks nearly as patchy as the dinghies migrants are crossing in. The Europeans set aside their worries about the growing authoritarianism of Turkey’s government and promised €3 billion ($3.2 billion) in aid for refugees along with a package of political goodies. These included restarting Turkey’s stalled EU accession process and visa-free travel for its citizens as early as October 2016. In exchange the EU expects Turkey to keep the migrants away.

This is to be achieved in part by tightening up border controls. So far this year the Turkish coast guards have stopped or rescued some 79,000 migrants at sea. The EU expects the Turks to pick up many more. From January, Frontex, the EU border agency, will have a liaison officer in Turkey. In a joint statement after the Brussels summit, the two sides said they will make more use of existing “readmission” provisions. That means migrants who are deemed ineligible for refugee status in Europe can be quickly sent back to Turkey.

The EU also believes the numbers making the crossing can be reduced by improving the lives of refugees in Turkey. That is where the €3 billion aid package is intended to help, but there are few specifics on how it will be used—or how it will reach the intended beneficiaries. Of the 2m Syrian refugees currently registered in Turkey, only 260,000 are housed in the 25 camps set up by the Turkish authorities. Most of the others live as Zehra does, crammed many to a room in slum dwellings, or on the streets of big cities. That makes them harder for aid programmes to find.

No new beginnings 
Perhaps the biggest problem refugees face in Turkey is not lack of benefits, but the inability to integrate. Syrians enjoy “temporary protection” in Turkey, but not full refugee status, meaning they cannot get work permits. “Lack of status is the main push factor” driving migrants to leave, says Metin Corabatir of the Research Centre on Asylum and Migration, a Turkish think-tank. Without proper work permits, refugees must find informal black-market jobs at wages far below those paid to Turks; many are exploited. Some report being cheated out of promised wages on construction jobs. Besides the children selling trinkets in the streets, there are reports of some working illegally in the textile industry.

Education is another key issue. According to AFAD, Turkey’s relief agency, 290,000 children are currently being taught in temporary refugee education centres. But a recent report from Human Rights Watch, an NGO, estimated that 400,000 of the 700,000 school-age Syrian children in Turkey are receiving no formal schooling. Registering in Turkish schools is legally possible, but the bureaucracy is arduous. Most Syrians speak no Turkish, and parents have trouble communicating with schools and teachers, says Gizen Demirci Al Kadah, who runs a service centre for refugees.

Turkey is considering granting some refugees work permits, and a government research project is identifying their skills and assessing what gaps in the labour market they could fill. But quickly getting hundreds of thousands of Syrian children into school would be a massive effort. And it is doubtful that even ambitious reforms would sharply cut down the numbers of migrants making their way to Greece. Better treatment of Syrians will in any case do little to restrict the numbers of non-Syrian refugees (Afghans, Iraqis and others) for whom Turkey is merely a way station on the road to Europe.

Many in Europe doubt that Turkish police have the capacity to stop the migrants. Smugglers are adept at changing their methods and routes. And returning unqualified migrants is harder than it sounds: of the almost 9,000 migrants Greece asked Turkey to readmit between January and September, only eight were actually sent back, according to Greek police—mainly because by the time Turkey granted permission, the migrants had moved on. Before the summit in Brussels, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said Europe must protect its own external borders and “cannot outsource this obligation to any third country.” Without effective external border control, he added, the Schengen visa-free zone “will become history”. Refugee advocates warn that putting too much pressure on Turkey to prevent refugees from moving westward could have nasty consequences, increasing the risk of “push-backs” and police brutality. There are already reports that Turkey has begun refusing entry to Syrians fleeing the war, a violation of the Convention on Refugees.

EU diplomats hope that the new agreement will not just close down irregular migration routes, but open up the possibility of accepting hundreds of thousands of qualified Syrian refugees through regular channels, after interviewing them in Turkey. That would certainly be a change. So far the numbers have been tiny: the International Organisation on Migration says about 9,000 refugees, out of the more than 2m now in Turkey, have left this year through legal resettlement or family reunification programmes. Unless those numbers grow, and unless Turkey begins to offer refugees like Zehra the prospect of a better future, many will continue to find unofficial ways to cross the border.