Erdogan is using refugees as blackmail to avoid accusations of invading Syria – the EU-Turkey deal must end now

Maya Thomas-Davis, Lorraine Leete
Conditions at the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos in January 2017: AP

Turkey is attacking North East Syria, also known as Rojava, in gross violation of international law. Turkish President Erdogan says he plans to “repatriate” Syrian refugees by creating a “safe zone” extending 32 kilometres from the Turkish border into the area liberated by Kurdish forces, which lost 11,000 fighters defeating Isis.

Turkish occupation of this region threatens the peaceful Autonomous Administration of North East Syria, an emergent system based on direct democracy, multiculturalism, ecology, cooperative economy and feminist liberation. Turkey’s invasion is also likely to result in the resurgence of Isis; crimes against humanity and war crimes in the form of genocide, summary executions, use of chemical weapons; and the forcible displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

In response to criticism, Erdogan was quick to warn the EU that Turkey “will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way” if its military operation is called an invasion. While clearly reprehensible on its own terms, Erdogan’s threat says far more about the EU than it does about Turkey’s authoritarian leader. President of the European Council Donald Tusk responded: “We will never accept that refugees are weaponised and used to blackmail us”.

Yet by pursuing a policy of border externalisation, which means paying Europe’s neighbours to act as its border guards – while ignoring the actions of those it funds and its own role in the violence that forces human movement – it is the EU which turned people seeking freedom, safety and dignity into commodities and bargaining chips, enabling precisely the weaponisation and blackmail that Tusk denounces.

The Legal Centre Lesvos was set up following the EU-Turkey “deal” of March 2016. Under this deal, Turkey was to be paid 6 billion euros in exchange for acting as a border guard to fortress Europe. Meanwhile, the Greek island “hotspots” were transformed into open-air prisons where survivors of the journey across the Mediterranean wait, often for years, under the threat of deportation to Turkey.

For the past three years, the Legal Centre has documented and denounced the violence, rights violations and misery caused by the EU-Turkey deal on Lesvos, as well as the organised resistance of the people subject to it. Every day in the office we see the faces of the people affected by the imperialist wars and shifting geopolitics that grab international headlines; such as Turkey’s US-facilitated invasion of Rojava.

Most people arrive on the shores of Lesvos unaware of the political-legal framework set up to deny them basic rights or the inhumane and degrading conditions awaiting them. There are currently over 14,000 people living in Moria: “the worst refugee camp on earth”.

Approximately 5,000 people arrived in Moria last month. These figures are the highest since 2015 and unlike then, people who arrive today to the Greek islands are prohibited from continuing their travel. Moria is approximately four times over capacity and has long since sprawled outside its fenced area: every spot of land is covered with shipping containers, summer tents and makeshift shelters. There is a lack of food, water, privacy, a severe lack of medical attention and a lack of safety – particularly for LGBTQIA+ folk, women and girls. People have perished from the cold and been burnt alive in fires. It is difficult to describe the inhumanity people are enduring here as a direct consequence of the EU-Turkey deal.

We see many reasons why the deal should be considered unlawful. The “fast-track border procedure” introduced with the EU-Turkey deal violates due process: through detention on arrival; truncated time limits; asylum decision-making based on “opinions” written by European Asylum Support Office personnel, which lack legal basis; and through procedures being differentiated according to country of origin – violating the principle of non-discrimination. Given these procedural violations and abysmal living conditions on the "hotspots", the containment policy preventing asylum applicants from leaving the islands also violates the EU Reception Conditions Directive, which only allows asylum applicants’ free movement to be restricted if other standards such as living conditions and the right to private life are not thereby compromised.

Turkey is not a signatory to the Protocol to the Refugee Convention, meaning the “protection” it offers refugees is not guaranteed. This is illustrated by the fact that Turkey has routinely flouted the principle of non-refoulement by forcibly returning refugees to Syria.

If any of the hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced by Turkey’s war on Rojava seek refuge in Europe, under the EU-Turkey deal they will be threatened with deportation to the very state responsible for their displacement. Yet the EU relies on diplomatic assurances to justify designating Turkey a “safe third country” and Greece continues to deport applicants for international protection there, recently announcing that it will accelerate the procedure and deport 10,000 individuals by the end of 2020.

Last week, when the European Council adopted a resolution leading Member States to halt arms exports to Turkey, they shied away from the term “invasion”. Yet Turkey’s so-called “unilateral military action”, which goes against the prohibition of the use of force with no justification under the UN Charter, amounts to Aggression. The crime of Aggression gives rise to an international responsibility not to render aid or assistance.

Erdogan’s weaponisation of refugees to blackmail the EU into complicity must therefore serve as a wake-up call. The funding and legitimation given under the EU-Turkey deal must be seen as rendering aid and assistance to Turkey’s aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The EU-Turkey deal has caused enough violence, misery and death. As a matter of the same urgency as ending arms exports, the European Union must immediately end the EU-Turkey deal.

Maya Thomas-Davis is training to be a barrister and Lorraine Leete is a coordinator of the Legal Centre Lesvos

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