Erdogan is Flooding Refugees to Extort the EU
Turkey and Syria are headed towards war, after 30 Turkish soldiers were killed in an attack by the Syrian government in a zone previously negotiated to be safe for them. At the same time, Turkey and Russia are also in a de facto war, with Ankara going beyond what are normally considered retaliatory strikes. The ambitions of President Recep Erdoğan to create a buffer zone alongside the border between Turkey and Syria, and to fight Kurdish terrorist groups allied with separatist Kurds in Turkey, have been hit by the hard reality of the region’s multiple vested interests.
Erdoğan has sought the support of the United States to defend against Russian and Syrian advances against its observation points near the northern Syrian city of Idlib. Simultaneously, he’s also asking Moscow to crack down on the alliance between the United States and Kurdish forces in Syria. Walking this tightrope has proven fatal, involving Ankara in an expensive and doomed war.
In an effort to get the United States further drawn into the conflict, Erdoğan is rattling Europe’s cage. The Europeans are less than keen to deal with a new refugee crisis, which this war will inevitably produce. Yet Erdogan has announced he will not hold back four million Syrian refugees from entering the EU’s outer external borders in Greece and Bulgaria. He’s also said that 18,000 refugees had gathered on the Turkish border with Europe since Friday, adding that the number could reach as many as 30,000 on Saturday. One Turkish mayor has even vowed to organize free bus rides for refugees seeking to reach the Greek border, escalating the tension between Athens and Ankara.
In October I wrote an op-ed for TAC arguing that the deal on refugees that the European Union concluded with Turkey in 2016 was a mistake. For the proud sum of €6 billion, Erdoğan had promised to keep Syrian fugitives inside Turkish borders, so long as Brussels agreed on an exchange mechanism that would gradually grant status to an equal number of Syrians. Meanwhile, Turkey has been exposed as inflating its refugee numbers, all while stealing from them. Now that they are a convenient bargaining chip in gaining Europe’s attention, Erdoğan is once again putting hard choices before the EU. He claims that Turkey does not have the ability to help tens of thousands of refugees if Idlib falls, and members of his cabinet have described Turkey-based Syrians as a national security threat, as the country is at war with Syria. As right-wing parties in Europe argue that refugees will not only destabilize the continent’s social fabric but also worsen the effects of the coronavirus, Erdoğan knows that he is holding a valuable bargaining chip.
A new refugee crisis, like the one that began in 2015, could have serious political consequences for the European Union, as member states have still failed to agree on a common system for allowing refugees to enter the continent. In the past, countries such as Germany and Sweden had been particularly permissive in giving people temporary residency, with Central European countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary opposed to any obligation to take people in. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in 2015 that Muslim refugees “threaten Europe’s Christian roots.” In past elections, immigration has been one of the core issues in European politics, strengthening right-wing parties across the continent. It was at the forefront of the Italian far-right Lega party, which first entered government in 2018. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany is also gaining ground in federal and regional elections, making it harder for mainstream parties to find coalition partners.
A renewed refugee crisis would be a stress test for Europe, because 30,000 new people would only be the beginning. Turkey is sure to send more refugees to the border as its standing in Syria worsens. Central and Eastern Europe are unlikely to agree to a Brussels-led redistribution system of refugees—as that’s failed before—and Western European nations are far less likely to bring displaced people in with open arms than they were in 2015. As new waves make their way to Europe, tens of thousands of migrants who entered during the beginning of the Syrian war haven’t even been processed yet.
That said, standing up to Turkey and refusing entry to Syrian refugees would create an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. If Western Europe acted on principle in 2015, it will have a hard time changing its mind now—especially since many of the same people are still in power.
What Europe should do is to open an easier pathway to work permits for existing refugees from the 2015 wave and create incentives for hesitant countries (and non-EU countries in the Balkans) to take in a certain number of migrants based on strict acceptance criteria. Beyond that, Europe needs to realize that Turkey is a necessary though unreliable partner. Instead of letting itself be bullied by Erdoğan—who’s holding millions of people hostage for the sake of his military expansion in Syria—the EU should force Ankara’s hand on keeping the refugees, if necessary through economic sanctions. With the Turkish Lira on a steady downfall and businesses relying on exports to Europe, Erdoğan would then face his own hard choices: stand on principle or break his neck in the next election.
The coming months will show who is willing to turn whose tables.
Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.