Current Events: The Syrian Refugee Crisis Confronts Europe’s “Shield” Once Again
Updated: Mar 8, 2020
Article by Jonathan Abrams,
As thousands of Syrian refugees desperately tried to storm barbed wire fences at the Turkish-Greek border, Greek security forces beat them back, shot rubber bullets and threw tear gas at them while an army truck blared a message in Arabic: the border is closed. Greek forces also fired at dinghies carrying refugees off the coast of the island of Lesbos. All told, Greece has stopped at least 32,000 refugees from entering its territory since February 29, when Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Turkey would no longer prevent refugees from leaving Turkey for Europe.
By ending this policy, Erdogan reneged on Turkey’s 2016 pact with the EU under which the EU gave Turkey €6.7 billion in exchange for keeping 3.7 million Syrian refugees within its borders. Erdogan claimed that Turkey could not handle the recent surge in Syrian refugees fleeing violence in Syria into Turkish territory. The reversal also comes on the heels of a serious military defeat in the Idlib region of northwest Syria suffered by Turkish-backed rebels against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, a defeat that will make it harder for Turkey to establish a safe zone to resettle Syrian refugees. But Turkey’s unilateral rescission of the 2016 agreement caters to a Turkish public that strongly opposes the continued presence of the refugees in Turkey. A May 2018 poll commissioned by the Center for American Progress revealed that nearly 80 percent of Turks want the refugees to return to Syria, whereas only 13 percent support the current situation.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, by expelling these refugees from its borders without examining their cases, Greece is acting in violation of the 1951 Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention mandates that states “shall not expel a refugee lawfully in their territory save on grounds of national security or public order.” The Convention also mandates that “except where compelling reasons of national security otherwise require, the refugee shall be allowed to submit evidence to clear himself.” Greece has invoked Article 78(3) of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) to defend its behavior. Article 78(3) permits EU Member States to adopt provisional measures in response to a sudden influx of third countries nationals. However, it also requires Member State to adopt such measures only after consulting the European Parliament — a protocol that Greece has not followed.
Yet Greece’s illegal rejection of Syrian refugees enjoys support from the EU. The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, called Greece a “European aspida [shield]” and promised it €700 million for maintaining border security. “This border is not only a Greek border but it is also a European border and I stand here today as a European at your side,” she told reporters near the land border. European Council chief Charles Michel called on Turkey to maintain its end of the 2016 agreement. David McAllister, head of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, warned against the possibility of another influx of Syrian refugees like in 2015, when European countries took in 1.3 million.
The current impasse between Greece and Turkey reflects a broken system for managing the refugees, as well as the failure of the EU to properly implement the 2016 agreement. Turkey’s refugee camps fall well below international standards, while the country disputes that it has received the full €6.7 billion promised by the EU. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, meanwhile, has accused Erdogan of blackmailing Greece and the EU for more funding, specifically for its military campaign in Syria, by threatening to release millions of refugees into Europe. Without Turkey keeping the refugees within its borders, the EU is woefully unprepared for a new influx of immigrants. Nevertheless, until Greece and the broader European community show willingness to face this long-term problem head on — which would mean processing these refugees and integrating them peacefully into their societies — their humanitarian reputation hangs in the balance.