What evolution of asylum policies in European countries since 2015?
Subscribe nowReceive every three months the new issue of European Insights in your mailbox Subscribe
The COVID-19 crisis puts a hold on President Erdoğan’s strategy of opening the borders
Whereas Turkey was hoping to apply pressure to the EU by deciding no longer to keep refugees on her territory, on 18th March the authorities announced the closing of the borders with Bulgaria and Greece in order to contain the spreading of coronavirus.
Following the deaths of 33 Turkish soldiers in the Idlib region in Syria, and in order to obtain the support of the European Union (EU) in his offensive, on 28th February the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had decided to open the country’s borders. In addition to saying that Turkey is no longer able to take any refugees, he believes that the EU has failed to fulfil the pledges set out in the 2016 immigration agreement (financial aid paid only in part, refugee resettlement programme in Member Statesunderdeveloped, the introduction of visas for Turkish citizens travelling to the EU not implemented). Even so, the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis maintains that the Turkish President has himself breached the agreement, arguing that his country could no longer manage the process of taking all the exiles on its territory.
Against this background, European leaders have adopted a number of emergency measures, the main ones aiming to limit the number of people arriving in Greece and to strengthen surveillance at the EU’s external borders, which goes against the principle of non-refoulement. On 2nd March, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said that the EU was undertaking to pay 700 million euros to the Greek government, in addition to material aid. On the same day, and at the request of the Greek government, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex also announced the deployment of new officers in order to seal the border more hermetically. Finally, the bloc was due to allocate a budget of 60 million euros to humanitarian aid in north-western Syria. As for the Mitsotakis government, on 1st March it decided that no asylum applications would be accepted for a period of one month.
However, the Turkish strategy has been disrupted by the health crisis, with the authorities saying on 18th March that borders posts were going to be closed as a precautionary measure. On 29th March, the Minister of the Interior, Süleyman Soylu, announced that the migrants who were in the area would be provided with shelter. Indeed, the public authorities say that, following the increase in the number of cases of COVID-19 in Turkey, they have taken almost 5,800 people to “repatriation centres” located in nine of the Turkish provinces. Even so, the European Frontex agency had decided to maintain border checks, deeming that the situation was still worrying – on 17th March, 350 are alleged to have attempted to cross the border into Greece. On 3rd April, there were still 624 officers along the Greek land and sea borders, even though a potential reopening of borders posts has not yet been planned.
The Greek government welcomed the introduction of precautions of this kind, although the Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, nevertheless said that this is merely a one-off truce and that the crisis is not over. The two countries are now involved in adiplomatic game – Athens regularly accuses Ankara of helping migrants to reach Europe, with aims including that of spreading the virus there, although this information has never been confirmed by the International Organisation for Migration.