- Rory O'Keeffe
Idlib, Istanbul, Turkey and the EU: Review, 30 July 2019
2019 Statistics so far
1. New arrivals by sea
2. Transfers from the islands to mainland
3. Other removals from the islands
4. Detention Centre populations
*Brackets note the entire refugee population on the island, including those outside the detention centres.
5. Sea arrivals month-by-month
*Both up to and including 29 July
6. Turkey Coastguard pushbacks
The current rate of death in the Eastern Mediterranean is significantly lower (one death for every 322(.79) people) than in 2018 (one in 187 people), but is also significantly higher than the 2016 rate, of one death for every 393 people. A total of 59 men, women and children died in 2017, just five more than have already died this year. There are five months left of 2019.
8. Land and sea arrivals
Please note: sea arrival figures are up to and including 29 July of each year, the land figure for 2019 is up to and including 28 July, and for 2018 is for up to and including 31 July.
9. Mainland Population
*This number has fallen due to requests by the Greek government that refugees are moved out of UN-financed accommodation. This process is taking place in stages, based on the moment at which asylum was granted to those within the scheme. The UN has made concessions to those with school-age children, who have been allowed to stay in their homes until the end of term.
**Unaccompanied children in Greece on 15 July 2019.
There are some significant concerns to be considered with these figures, due to the haphazard practice of the Greek government and some organisations in collecting and issuing data.
The first issue is that, as of 1 August 2017, the Greek government ceased issuing population numbers of all mainland refugee camps and detention centres, largely because its main funding source switched from ECHO, which demanded this information to be publicly-released, to AMIF (asylum and migration integration fund), which does not.
UNHCR along with partners issued two updates last year, the latter of which covered August and September 2018, but no details have been publicly issued since then. We are confident, through our research, that our numbers are accurate, but would welcome conversation on this point.
Detention centre numbers are at present based upon the capacity of Greece’s six ‘pre-removal centres’ which are currently being used to host refugees on arrival, and one mainland reception and identification centre.
As a result, we must conclude that the number of refugees in Greece are in fact significantly higher than suggested by the publicly-available data suggests. In fact, the number of new entrants to Greece in 2018, combined with the known men, women and children who had left, led us to conclude that as of 22 October 2018, there were at least 17,951 people ‘missing’ from the UN and Greek government’s data. (https://www.koraki.org/single-post/2018/10/22/Numbers-the-missing-17951).
As we noted at the time, the ‘official’ (UNHCR) estimate of the number of refugees in Greece on 1 January 2018 was 70,142 people (actually around 2,000 fewer than we believe to be the case, as above). On 18 October, that figure had been revised – downwards – to 67,100. Our own research showed this to be incorrect (see below) and revealed that there were in fact 84,858 people acknowledged to be a part of the ‘asylum system’ in Greece.
But by 18 October, the number of ‘new’ refugees to have arrived in Greece was 37,842. In absence of other data, there should have been 107,984 people recognised as asylum seekers or refugees in the country.
The EU relocation scheme, which had officially ended just weeks before, registered just 172 people had been moved from Greece in the six months to 30 October, and in total, only 5,175 people had left Greece (through relocations, removals by the EU/Turkey Deal and IOM’s AVRR scheme combined), according to official data.
This meant that 102,809 men, women and children should have been in Greece as refugees or asylum seekers, and in turn, that official accounts had ‘lost’ more than one in every six people who had arrived in Greece since March 2016.
To return to the discrepancy between the UN’s figure, of 67,100, and our own, 84,858, we should note that UNHCR includes in its documents only those people who are being ‘processed’ by the UN: other asylum pathways exist, meaning that perhaps 17,758 may be pursuing asylum via those methods.
Even so, the first major problem with this is that the ‘official’ figure quoted was, in October 2018, some 17,758 smaller than the ‘real’ figure.
The second, even greater, is that as well as this missing 17,758, ‘lost’ in conversation about asylum seekers and refugees in Greece because organisations rely solely on UN figures (again, these are not wrong, they simply don’t include everyone), there were, in October 2018, another 17,951 men, women and children, who were not listed as being anywhere in Greece.
To update this situation to 31 December 2018: by this point a further 12,669 men, women and children had entered Greece by land or sea, while 981 people were removed under the IOM AVRR programme, and 51 others under the EU/Turkey Deal.
In total, this would equal a net increase of 11,638 people, while UNHCR’s official number was 71,200, meaning that – at least according to ‘official’ available records – there was a gap of 25,296 between the number of people UNHCR cited at the time, and the number including those ‘accounted for’ under other schemes in Greece.
Simultaneously, however, the difference of 17,951 between even all those who can be ‘discovered’ (96,496) and the number including the ‘missing’ (114,447) remains.
As at 30 July 2019, the difference between the UNHCR number – of refugees with which it is working, 80,600 – and the number of ‘located’ refugees, 91,079, as above, indicates that there are in fact 10,479 more people in Greece than the ‘official’ figure suggests.
The point, once again, is not that the UNHCR figure is ‘incorrect’, just that if we are to talk about the situation here in Greece, there is no justification whatsoever for the number of men, women and children with whom the UN works to be quoted as if it is the actual number of refugees in Greece, when we know the actual location of a further 10,479.
Even more concerning is that 17,431 people have arrived since 1 January 2019, yet the number of ‘located refugees’ has increased by just 13,234 (and in fact, the UN’s has increased by just 9,400, from 71,200 on 31 December 2018) – meaning another 4,179 men, women and children are not being counted at all.
This would, at first glance, suggest that 118,626 refugees are in Greece at present, compared with the UN’s stated 80,600, and our 91,079. However, earlier this year, under an agreement between Portugal and Greece, 1,000 refugee men, women and children were moved to the former, reducing this number to 117,626.
Further to this, up to March 2019 (when IOM ceased publishing its numbers) 1,201 men, women and children had been removed under the AVRR scheme. While we cannot be certain, as this is roughly average for a three-month period, we might add a further 1,600 for the four months which have followed, reducing the ‘total’ further, to 114,425 – fewer people than the 114,447 in Greece on 31 December 2019.
Even so, this would still leave a gap between the UN’s numbers and this figure of 33,825, and between the ‘total’ and this figure, of 23,364. As things stand, there are 23,364 ‘missing’ refugees in Greece, and 33,825 more refugee men, women and children in Greece than the UN figure most widely used.
There is one final point to be made here.
On 30 June this year, the Greek asylum service had granted refugee protection (meaning people can stay in Greece for three years) or ‘auxiliary status’ to 8,223 people since 1 January. The total for 2018 was 15,188. These numbers are in fact extremely close to (although interestingly, not the same as) the ‘difference’ between the ‘total’ reported number of refugee men, women and children in Greece and the number we should expect to be here based on arrivals set against removals.
The problem with this, however, is that the UN does not ‘remove’ these people from its totals (neither should it): for example, as we already noted, there are people in the UN accommodation scheme who have had refugee protection status for more than two years – albeit that they are set to be removed from the scheme.
In short, we cannot ‘remove’ these people from the numbers, because they are still regarded as refugees, and people in need of assistance, and are treated as such.
Simultaneously, in the same period (1 January 2018-30 June 2019) 22,222 men, women and children had their claims for asylum rejected. The problem with this number – aside from it being smaller than the number whose claims were accepted, and than the difference between the ‘total located’ refugees and the numbers based on arrivals set against removals, is that this number actually tells us very little.
Because refugees may make more than one application (or appeal), having one turned down does not equate to one refugee being removed from Greece. Nor, in fact, does the number of ‘rejected applications’ necessarily correspond one-for-one with the number of people who made those applications. We cannot rely on these numbers to explain the difference. In fact, they almost certainly do not.
Without at the very least, considerably better statistical record-keeping, we must conclude that not only are there 10,479 more refugees in Greece than the standard quoted UNHCR figure, but also that there are a further 23,634 men, women and children who are at best ‘unaccounted for’ in the Greek refugee response.
2018 and 2019, brief summary
As we predicted early last year, 2018 should have served as a warning to those of us fortunate enough to be able to regard situations which ruin lives as warnings.
Significantly more people arrived in Greece via the Mediterranean and by Greece’s land border with Turkey than had done in the previous year, and war in Syria, along with ongoing conflicts involving Kurdish and Iraqi forces, and Kurdish and Turkish forces, as well as ongoing fighting in Afghanistan, terror attacks in Pakistan, and conflict across large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, combined in the latter case with the ongoing Libyan war and efforts by Italy to prevent all passage towards its borders, continued to drive people towards Greece.
This year, to date, has seen a similar general trend. The end of the Turkish ‘curfew’, the move of its crackdown on political opposition from the arrest to the trial phase (although we will mention this below), as well as greater police presence in towns and villages close to the Evros river, have reduced the number of people crossing the land border, but the number this year is still almost as high as that in 2017, with five months of the year remaining.
The number arriving by sea is greater than either 2018, or 2017 at the same point, and the highest number of refugees to arrive by sea in the 28 months since the EU/Turkey Deal was enacted, arrived in the first 29 days of July. Two days remain of the month. And with only the Turkish exception, mentioned above, all the conflicts which were taking place at the end of 2018 are ongoing today.
Equally, in both 2018 and 2019, more men, women and children have entered Greece as refugees than Italy (more than double the number in 2018, roughly seven times the number this year) and in 2018 Greece received more than four-fifths as many people as Spain, this year so far roughly a third more.
We should also note that despite the rhetoric of Greek politicians when they need a ‘boost’, and occasionally from their Turkish counterparts under similar circumstances, the Turkish coastguard last year prevented almost as many people crossing as actually reached Greece. This year, it has stopped slightly more than have arrived here.
While we all oppose the use of the Turkish coastguard as a sea-militia, ‘protecting’ the EU from refugees, we must recognise that twice as many people would have arrived in the last 19 months than have actually done so: there is no drop in need for people to get here.
That is, if there is a refugee crisis anywhere in Europe – and we are strongly inclined to argue that there is not, but only because we can work together to make sure there is not – it is taking place in Greece.
The idea, then, that the ‘problem’ has been ‘solved’ in Greece, is certainly not supported by the facts. There are large numbers of people entering the state in need of our help and support, the island detention centres are several times more full than is either safe or legal, and all over Greece there are refugee camps open which were closed in celebratory fashion two years ago – many of which are also well over their safe capacity.
There are up to 114,425 men, women and children in Greece, more than 23,000 of whom are unaccounted for.
On the other hand, we must also note that in 2018, 51,182 people entered Greece. Fewer than would fill many of Western Europe’s top-division football stadia.
So far this year, a further 23,668 have arrived: too few to fill such stadia in almost any part of Europe.
The point is, the situation is not ‘going away’ and we must continue to talk about how serious it is. But we must also note that this does not pose a ‘threat’ to Greece, which has more than 11m citizens. It also certainly does not to the wider EU, which has 508,000,000.
We need people to continue to recognise the situation here, where men, women and children who have fled war and terror need and deserve safety and security. We also need to ensure they are not tricked into believing that the 23,668 refugees threaten a nation of 11.4m, or a political bloc of close to five times that. Review – part two. Recent events
Those of you who have received these reviews in the past know that we generally attempt to offer updates from across the world, dependent on their relevance to Greece, Europe, Turkey, refugees, displacement, migration and/or international law.
Those of you who have not, know it now.
We have spent a long time on numbers, however, so in this update, we feature four matters, all connected to one another, and directly to Greece, Turkey, and the response on which we are all working.
1. ‘57,000 arrested at Greek border since January’ - Soylu
Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu claims Turkish police have arrested 57,000 ‘illegal refugees’ attempting to cross the land border from Turkey into Greece, since the start of the year.
Soylu, speaking during a visit to Kahramanmaraş temporary housing shelter on 27 July, did not mention where the refugees were from, though he has spoken in recent days about both Syrians and Afghans who have been removed from Istanbul in the face of public protest (see below).
His claim is interesting, however, because as noted above, only 6,237 people have so far succeeded in making the ‘land’ crossing from Turkey to Greece in the first seven months of this year, meaning that the number arrested is more than nine times larger than the number who made it across, as well as slightly more than three times higher than the number who made the crossing in the whole of last year.
Neither of these things are impossible: Turkey’s border with Greece is relatively small, involves a dangerous river crossing, and as we have noted here several times, there is significant evidence of Greek border police illegally forcing people who have made the crossing back to Turkey.
But it is also interesting because a notably high proportion (though not a majority) of those who made the crossing last year were Turkish nationals, seeking to escape what was in the first six months of 2018, an increasingly repressive Turkish government. As the ‘curfew’ – and the sackings, arrests and violence which went with it – ended, it had been expected that this number would drop considerably.
We must also consider that increasing unrest in Turkey has also led to concern amongst Syrians that they may be forced out of Turkey, with the heavy implication that they would be pushed back into Syria. Afghans, who are not even offered the ‘protected status’ provided to Syrians by the Turkish government, are at least equally vulnerable to being forced back to the state they fled.
As with most messages from this Turkish government (and Soylu is a long-term and strong Erdogan loyalist) we should also consider who it is aimed at, why it was issued now, and what the government hopes the result will be.
On this, there appear to be three major possibilities. The first is that it’s a straight statement of ‘strength’ aimed both at AKP (Turkey’s governing party) loyalists, and to those who may sense ‘weakness’ within it following the party’s loss of Istanbul to the major opposition party, the CHP.
As a statement of capacity, it works to a certain extent, but it also – particularly if Turkish refugees are among those arrested – indicates an ongoing failure in AKP’s efforts to build a Turkey in which Turkish people can feel happy and secure.
The second possibility is that Soylu is addressing his statement to Syrians, Afghans and others in the state – effectively arguing that they cannot escape Turkish ‘justice’. This message would also be considered ‘useful’ for Turkish citizens to hear, also because it creates the idea that Syrians are ‘dangerous wildcards’ who ‘don’t follow laws’ – part of a debate which has been ongoing since before CHP positioned itself as ‘anti-Syrian’ in Turkey’s June 2018 general elections.
But Syrians and Afghans already know that they may be arrested if they are caught trying to escape, which would make this little more than a ‘confirmation’ of that position.
Thirdly, the Turkish government is (also, see below) re-opening an argument with the EU regarding its role in preventing Syrians from reaching the bloc. This statement, containing as it does a far higher number than anyone would really have expected, is likely designed as a warning not just to Turkish and Syrian people hoping to escape, or as a reaffirmation of AKP’s strength for supporters and opponents alike, but also as a reminder to the EU, that it relies on Turkey in order to achieve its (far from moral, and legally murky) aims.
We must note that 57,000 is a remarkably high number, considering what has gone before, and that sea crossings are still being made regularly – in greater number than over the same period last year.
It is unlikely that 57,000 people have been arrested at Greece’s border with Turkey, though it is not impossible.
But it is an effective reminder to Turkish people of AKP’s ‘strength and commitment’, to Syrians and others of the reach Turkey’s law enforcement, and to the EU of the extent of the refugee population and Turkey’s work to prevent it reaching the bloc: work which could be withdrawn. https://www.haberler.com/soylu-edirne-den-yilbasindan-beri-yakalanan-kacak-12284568-haberi/?fbclid=IwAR276ARmkjZLnfaeKJpbBXVSpCuYufWcri3Ch8ByLGmHE2o8BEeek6h6Adc
2. ‘Liberals’ win Istanbul: but Syrian people look set to suffer
Ekrem Imamoglu, representing CHP, the main opposition party to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP, won the re-run Istanbul mayoral elections, held on 24 June (he had also won the first).
He took 54 per cent of the vote, defeating AKP’s candidate and former Prime Minister of Turkey (in fact, the last, because of constitutional changes made by Erdogan), Binali Yildirim, who took 45 per cent.
His victory, by 800,000 votes, was remarkable for several reasons. First, that he had won by just 13,000 votes when the poll was first held on 31 March. That election was declared void by Turkey’s High Court for unclear reasons, and the sense of injustice may well have fed voters’ desire to see him win for a second time.
Second, it came exactly one day short of a year after AKP soundly defeated the CHP in Turkey’s most recent (snap) general elections – then, Erdogan took 52.59 per cent of the Presidential vote, beating his nearest rival Miharrem Ince of CHP, who took 30.64, while the AKP won 53.66 per cent of the parliamentary vote, against CHP’s 33.95 per cent.
But thirdly, and perhaps most remarkably, it is the first time since Recep Tayyip Erdogan won it in 1994 that Istanbul has not been controlled by Erdogan or a member of the party he was in (he set up AKP in 2001).
Erdogan himself regards the city as vital, and has stated that ‘whoever controls Istanbul, controls Turkey’, and at 15m has almost one-fifth of Turkey’s population.
Since that point, Erdogan has not lost an election seen as important to his party (though AKP has regularly lost in Kurdish regions, as well as in Izmir, the home of CHP, the party set up by Kemal Ataturk).
We could also consider, however, that Erdogan may have held Istanbul in high regard because it was the first place he won an election granting him a prominent national position, and that it has been a stronghold of his party ever since.
Either way, losing it in a local election does not significantly reduce his, or AKP’s, national power, but may well be an important symbolic moment for Turkey and its relationship with Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for 25 years.
The immediate aftermath of the election saw many ‘liberals’ (CHP is a largely liberal party, by tradition) in Turkey and elsewhere, celebrate an advance in the state, but from our perspective it may be important to note a complicating factor.
Because as mentioned previously, in 2018’s general elections, CHP had campaigned on a manifesto which included removing Syrian people from Turkey, and forcing them back to Syria.
We should note here that this may have been a desperate step by a party hoping to play a ‘populist’ card after an election was sprung upon it (Erdogan had promised that no early election would be called) by a government which had arrested several of its members – including its MP for Istanbul (II) Enis Berberoglu (he was sentenced to 25 years in jail for ‘divulging government secrets’, having been found guilty of sharing photos which appeared to show Turkish officials handing weapons to Syrian rebels, with newspaper journalists. The sentence was later reduced to five years, eight months, and has been commuted because Berberoglu was re-elected in June 2018).
It is also sensible to note that the issue of Syrian refugees in Turkey is far less simple than it may at first appear.
Because Turkey, as set up by Kemal Ataturk, also the founder of the CHP, was designed to be a strongly secular state. Erdogan, who was elected in Istanbul but stripped of the office of mayor and jailed for four months for inciting religious hatred, is widely regarded as the single greatest threat to that status in Turkey’s history.
In this context, the entry of 3.5 million Sunni Muslim Syrian people – and even more, their potential to gain citizenship – is regarded by some CHP supporters as endangering Turkey’s secular status.
Whatever the reason, understandably, CHP’s position alienated it to almost all Syrians in Turkey, and led to most of those who could vote, voting for Erdogan, and many of those who could not joining celebrations on the street when his victory was announced.
It is for this reason that Erdogan – a largely conservative right-winger – is sometimes claimed to be a ‘reformist’, while CHP, for all its ‘liberal’ history, can fairly be regarded as both conservative and nationalist on some issues.
We must note that Imamoglu himself did not promise to remove Syrian people from Turkey or Istanbul, and that he would not be able to remove them from the country even if he wanted to.
However, in the aftermath of Imamoglu’s election as mayor, the hashtag ‘Send Them Home’ began trending on Twitter, and he has claimed that there are one million Syrian refugees in Istanbul (the official government figure is 547,000).
Simultaneously, the election may have affected Erdogan in a way no-one quite predicted: losing him power within AKP itself. Erdogan promised a ‘new AKP’ in the aftermath of his party’s defeat, while some within the party have claimed (with very little evidence) that AKP’s perceived ‘weakness’ regarding Syrian people in Turkey was instrumental in it losing Istanbul (this is one of the grave dangers of nationalism: if one defeats a non-nationalist, it is nationalism which is the reason: if one loses an election in astonishingly poor economic conditions, following a two-year purge, it is lack of nationalism which is to blame).
In response, Erdogan stated at the start of the month that any Syrian deemed to be a criminal by Turkey will be forcibly deported back to Syria, while last week, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced that any refugee who did not return to the Turkish province where they registered in Turkey, could also be forced back to Syria. He later said that ‘all Syrians in Turkey have temporary protected status’ and so ‘would not be deported’, but it is far from clear, in that case, what his previous announcement meant.
In short – and in summary – the immediate response to the loss of Istanbul by Erdogan was greeted as a positive step by ‘liberals’ across the world (and in Turkey), but for men, women and children who have fled war in Syria, it has so far been extraordinarily negative: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/politics/istanbul-poll-election-body-announces-official-result/1528594; https://www.trtworld.com/turkey/istanbul-gives-syrians-a-month-to-return-to-home-provinces-28447; https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/.premium-in-turkey-and-lebanon-syrian-refugees-met-with-growing-hostility-1.7606715; http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/unregistered-syrians-sent-back-to-camps-in-turkey-interior-minister-145224
3. Syrian people deported from Lebanon, Turkey
a) Turkey, and the impacts of the ‘race to racism’
The above update may seem a little confusing, containing as it does several different strands of thought, some of which cross over – rather than directly leading from or to – one another.
In summary, what has happened is that because of AKP’s defeat in Istanbul, elements of the party appear to be forcing a far harder line to be taken against Syrian refugees, significantly clamping down on their freedom of movement within Turkey (though for some, this has been the case since before the Istanbul election. Syrians are banned from beaches in Gazipasa and Mudanya, for example: both cities are run by CHP mayors).
One part of this has been the demand by the Interior Ministry that all Syrian people in Istanbul must return within four weeks to the province in which they were registered, or face deportation: though Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, as noted above later ‘explained’ that no Syrians would be deported to Syria.
This has led to 1,000 Syrians being ‘arrested’ and told they have four weeks to leave the city (they must leave by 20 August): yet another immoral and unjustifiable upheaval men, women and children whose lives have already been turned upside down by war are being forced to face.
At this point it’s probably worth noting that the ‘average Turkish person’ had very little problem whatsoever with Syrian people before roughly two years ago.
There were concerns surrounding the political and religious impact that 3.6m (well over two million more Syrian refugees allowed in by the entire EU, for comparison) Sunni Muslim Syrians might have on Turkey, and some of these were extremely unreasonable. But in general, most Turkish people understood both that Syrian men, women and children were fleeing death at the hands of a vicious dictator and/or vicious terror organisation, and in any case that Turkish and Syrian people had lived side by side for centuries without any problems.
AKP did not help matters, by claiming that international aid organisations were in fact Western intelligence agencies, spying on Turkey, or by choosing to build a wall between itself and Syria to prevent any more Syrian men, women and children entering Turkey. And the EU absolutely didn’t help, both by demanding that Syrians must be prevented from entering the EU, and effectively making that wall an attractive option to the Turkish government.
But in general, the situation was fairly widely regarded as acceptable, if not actively good for Turkey and its people (the recognition that EU money was being handed to Turkey, and that an increased demand for housing had sparked significant construction growth, both played a part here).
The major problem, as is almost always the case, was economic collapse, which struck Turkey in 2017. AKP’s increasingly nationalistic and protectionist policies caused a massive fall in international trade, which caused the Lira to collapse against the Euro, Dollar, Sterling and Yen.
The EU itself also did not help, failing (it has still failed) to pay Turkey the €6bn it had promised (the first €3bn by the end of 2017, the second by the end of 2018. So far, €3bn has been paid: it is now the end of July 2019) under the terms of the EU/Turkey Deal.
And the impact was absolutely predictable. Turkish people were laid off, and rather than blaming the economy, or the government, they and the politicians who wanted their votes instead blamed (or in some cases hinted that the blame ultimately lay with) Syrian men and women, who, it was argued, were being paid less for their labour than Turkish people were, and had therefore forced Turkish people from their jobs, rather than the economy forcing wages down and cutting jobs (another interesting point about the way in which nationalism uses capitalism: it relies almost exclusively on making people forget that no one wants to earn less than the going rate for their labour. It is depressing how often this works).
For CHP, this built on their already existent concerns about the ‘destabilisation’ of ‘secular Turkey’, while for AKP, it posed a threat to its ongoing (absolute) dominance over Turkish politics: if they were in charge when things went wrong, they might be punished at the polls, and with Syrians already beginning to be blamed, it was easier to continue this than accept their own policies caused the collapse.
In any case, the ‘arrest’ and removal of 1,000 Syrian men, women and children from Istanbul in the next four weeks, and terrifying them with the possibility that they will be deported to Syria, where they have fled chaos, terror and death at the hands of their own government (a government which is still in power) – even if the latter threat has since been ‘clarified’ – is unacceptable, and driven by this ‘race to racism’ by CHP and AKP.
Simultaneously, also as mentioned above, Erdogan himself, in an effort to ‘win’ the votes of Turkish voters, has also begun talking about deportation: this time, of Syrian ‘criminals’.
We should note that the idea that ‘criminals’ should be deported to a place in which the major likelihood is that they will be bombed or tortured to death is an absolutely unacceptable position to hold.
But even if it were not, it is almost impossible not to conclude that Erdogan was here making a statement to Turkish voters that he and AKP are ‘strong’ and will act against people who mean harm to Turkey, which also (and not accidentally) mixed with the messages on being ‘removed’ from Istanbul issued by other parts of his government, terrifying Syrian and other people of protected status in Turkey. Some medical practitioners have told media outlets that anti-refugee statements are causing regression in people they have been treating with post-traumatic psychological problems.
In order to enable these ‘deportations’ – of criminals or of people who were registered elsewhere in Turkey – to happen, cities all over Turkey have increased ‘spot checks’ designed to discover Syrian people not carrying documentation.
It is in this context that the third strand to the Turkish government’s most recent activities regarding its Syrian population becomes even more of a threat: the actual deportation of Syrian men and women to Syria.
An increasing number of aid organisations have been detailing incidents in which Syrian residents of Istanbul (and some other parts of Turkey) have been arrested by Turkish police, forced to give their fingerprints and sign documents, which they are then told are ‘voluntary deportation documents’, and are sent to Syria.
The Turkish government denies that this is the case, saying that those arrested – the number arrested in the last week is reported by Turkish government news agency Anadolu as 2,244 will be sent only to the province of Turkey in which they live – but one source who spoke to Al-Monitor said: ‘If you make problems, or draw any attention to yourself, you get deported. When there is a problem between Turks and Syrians, at the end of the day the Turks will go home and the Syrians will get sent back to Syria — a warzone.’
Another man, who spoke to Human Rights Watch, said: ‘I am from Aleppo. I had been living in Gaziantep in southeast Turkey since 2013. When my brother and I went to the police to complain about an attack on a shop we run in the city, we were arrested. The police transferred us from the Gaziantep Karşıyaka police station to the foreigners’ deportation centre at Oğuzeli. We were held for six days and forced to sign a deportation form without them telling us what it was.’ They were taken by bus to Azaz, while many others who say they have been deported have been sent to Idlib.
It is already clear that return to Syria is not safe for the majority of refugees. The Assad regime has stated that it would rather ‘10m loyal Syrians than 27m which includes the traitors we had before.’ And there are a vast number of documented cases of people being forced from Lebanon and other states, only to be arrested on arrival in Syria and never seen again, their families in a few cases receiving messages that they ‘died in custody’.
It is also extremely clear that Idlib is far from safe, as the target of an ongoing campaign by Assad and the Russian airforce which killed more children in the third week of July than were killed in the whole of 2018, which struck 24 hospitals and health centres in as many days in May and which has killed 400 people since the end of April.
The prospect of being sent there – and the clear fact that Turkish police are in some cases deporting people into a country they fled to escape war and death – is already causing mental health issues for Syrian men, women and children. It will also push many to attempt to escape – indeed, as the largest number of people to move in any month since the EU/Turkey deal was signed in March 2016 have arrived in Greece this month, it appears that they already are.
As noted previously, the situation surrounding Syrian refugees in Turkey is complicated by a number of political and religious factors, as well as basic nationalism and racism. That is not to excuse the state from its responsibilities, but they do exist.
And what is true in Turkey is magnified extraordinarily in Lebanon.
The Lebanese political system was created after a 15 year civil war which ended in 1990. Without going into too much detail (we have detailed this extensively in pieces last summer) it effectively relies upon a quite precise balance of power between the state’s Sunni Muslims, its Shi’a Muslims, and its Maronite Christian populations.
Under this system, alongside a balance in the representation of all groups at all levels of government, the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the House of Representatives a Shi’ite.
It is worth noting here that Bashar Al-Assad’s father, Hafez (who preceded him as Syrian President) was a leader of the Shi’a forces in Lebanon, using Syrian troops to support Hizbollah, while Bashar himself ‘learnt to rule’ in Lebanon.
In practice, the system works quite well. But the Syrian civil war has caused Lebanon and its delicate balance to change in a number of ways.
First, because Hizbollah, which fought alongside Syrian forces in the Lebanese civil war, and is now fighting in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad, wins the vast majority of Shi’a votes in Syria.
Second, because the Sunni Islam Prime Minister Saad Hariri (and the people he represents) strongly believe that it is their duty to help the largely Sunni Muslim refugees who have fled Assad.
And third, because Maronite Christians are concerned (as are the Shi’a Muslims) about the impact on Lebanese society and politics of 1.5m Syrian Sunni Muslim refugees into a country with a population of just six million: Lebanon can (and in fairness has, repeatedly) justifiably say that increasing its population by a quarter is far more than it can possibly be expected to cope with, but there are also significant political elements to their concerns.
We should note that this problem is one of the international community – most especially the West –‘s own making. UNHCR requested in 2012, 2013 and 2014 that each developed nation should welcome 20,000 Syrian men, women and children into their countries (they made the same request on several different occasions: they didn’t ask for each state to take 60,000 in total) and this was largely to reduce the burden on Lebanon, which was in almost every way incapable of taking in so many people at once.
Almost all, including the UK, France, the US and at first Germany, refused.
However, over the years, Hizbollah, which as noted supports Assad and is fighting for him in Syria, and later other Shi’a Muslims, as well as large parts of the Maronite community, including Lebanese President Michel Aoun, have pointed to increasing infrastructure problems and hardship for Lebanese people as ‘the fault’ of Syrians.
They also – perhaps deliberately – began to reduce interaction between Lebanese and Syrian people, building walls around Syrian refugee camps citing fears for ‘safety’ in both communities.
And in the last 12 months, even Saad Hariri, who was one of the major public campaigners for Lebanon to assist Syrian refugees, has spoken less about them in positive terms and more in terms of how the ‘problem’ can be ‘solved’ (Hariri, some of you may remember, was ‘kidnapped’ by Saudi Arabia last summer: since then he has reduced his statements in support of rebels fighting against Assad, as well as in support of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. This is interesting in that Saudi Arabia is a Sunni state, and leads us to wonder whether Hariri is reacting against his ‘captors’ or whether the Saudis themselves have some plan for a Syrian future, perhaps attempting to ensure that the Sunni majority remain in and/or return to the state, on the grounds that if the Syrian civil war has been ‘won’ by Assad, it might be better from a Saudi perspective for Sunni Muslim people to continue to make up the majority of Syria’s population: in either case, it is likely that Hariri’s position is also based on pressures on him from within Lebanon, and/or are a genuinely held belief that the state cannot continue to support Syrian people indefinitely).
None of these ‘explanations’, however, excuses or makes legal (there is no excuse and the activity is not legal) recent developments in Lebanon.
The Lebanese government is increasingly claiming the ‘situation’ in Syria is now ‘calm’ and therefore refugees can ‘return home’, while a law passed in late June which states that Lebanon will put ‘Lebanese employment first’ has seen at least hundreds of Syrian workers dismissed from their jobs in Beirut and other cities.
Despite the claims of ‘calm’, however, a simultaneous policy of forced deportation has been ongoing – in effect unbroken, though often excused by different statements – since early 2018. And in May this year, at least 301 people were forced back into Syria.
Few of these people are immediately driven into Idlib (though in many cases they are ‘driven’ into Idlib later) but are instead dropped in places now under full government control, where in many cases they are arrested and never seen again.
We must remember that despite the political convenience (especially, but by no means solely, for Hizbollah) of claiming so, Syria is not only not free of war, but the person that millions of men, women and children fled to save their lives, is still in charge: he cannot be trusted to safeguard their lives, or in fact not to actually kill them, and we must not accept any pretence that sending refugees back to Syria is anything other than sending them directly to their deaths.
Simultaneously, we should remember that as soon as they can – if they are ever able to – they will make every effort to enter the EU, as neither Lebanon nor Turkey can possibly be regarded any longer as a safe space for them. We must be ready to welcome them, including by preparing the way through communication: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/07/syrian-refugee-deportation-turkey.html#ixzz5vHJLrtCk; https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/07/26/turkey-forcibly-returning-syrians-danger; https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/syrian-refugees-panic-threat-deportation-rises-lebanon-190725102745367.html; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/29/syrian-refugees-in-beirut-and-istanbul-detained-and-deported
4. UN humanitarian leader demands Security Council ‘take action on Idlib’
Mark Lowcock, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs has demanded the UN Security Council ‘does something’ to stop what he described as ‘carnage’ in Idlib.
He noted that at least 450 civilians have been killed in the north Syrian region since late April, more than a hundred of whom were killed in the last two weeks. Hundreds more have been injured, 440,000 people have been displaced, he told the meeting yesterday (30 July 2019).
For those of you who have not been receiving these updates, Idlib is a region of Syria which had a pre-war population of about 1.4m and now contains 3.2m (some estimates suggest closer to 4m). Some of this increase has been down to ‘standard’ displacement (we apologise for the term): that is, people who have fled from their homes to a place not yet under the control of Bashar Al Assad.
But far more has come about because each time he has ‘liberated’ a ‘de-escalation zone’, Assad has offered people a ‘choice: stay where they are and accept him as President, or move somewhere else. After the offensives against Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Douma, Idlib was one of the last places remaining.
We – along with a number of other commentators – warned the international community that, as Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta (among other locations) had been designated as ‘de-escalation zones’ by Russia, Iran and Assad (as well as Turkey) only to be attacked with missiles and ground forces (and in several cases chemical weapons) until they surrendered – by Assad, Iran and Russia – the ‘herding’ of people who opposed Assad into one area, Idlib, was hardly likely to end in a peaceful outcome, beneficial to the men, women and children of Syria.
To be fair, the humanitarian arms of the UN have also made these warnings, noting that the region was not safe from large-scale attack.
Nor was it designed to be. What we have seen since the major build-up of troops by the regime and its allies on Idlib’s borders in late January and early-February has been the preparation for a massacre. It is just about possible that Russia, in particular, hopes that by killing a ‘limited’ number of people (as noted, so far 450) and spreading terror and chaos among as much of the rest of the population as it possibly can, Idlib might ‘surrender’ to Assad before the deaths reach the hundreds of thousands.
This might explain why in May 24 hospitals and health centres were struck in as many days by Russian and Syrian missiles (a war crime; though so is the targeting of civilians). It may also explain why a market in Ariha – rather than, perhaps an outpost of a group which actually opposes Assad – was struck by Assad and Russian missiles on Saturday 28 July, killing at least 11 people.
But in Assad's case, this is not really even a consideration.
We must be clear: when Lowcock describes ‘carnage’ in Idlib, he is not wrong. But we may get the wrong impression. Because for many of us, ‘carnage’ implies a level of disorganisation, even chaos. But that is not what is happening in Idlib.
There, as in the later stages of Franco’s massacre of Spain, Assad has been planning this late moment of the Syrian civil war since 2015, when Russian aircraft and missiles turned the tide of war for him. He has refused surrender, and made no attempt to find peace, instead corralling those who oppose him – whether they are armed or civilians – into an area where he can, systematically, kill them.
Mr Lowcock is perfectly correct to ask, as he did: ‘You know what is happening and you have done nothing for 90 days as the carnage continues in front of your eyes. Are you going to do something about it?’
He also knows, as well as we do, that the answer is ‘no’. Not because the UN is evil, or unfeeling, but because Russia, one of the active participants not only in the Syrian civil war, but in this outrage being committed in Idlib, is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and thus has a veto it has already used 15 times in relation to this conflict, and will use again if any serious proposal is made to ‘do something’: https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/syria/11-killed-in-government-airstrike-on-northern-syrian-market-activists-say-1.7579819; https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/07/1043471?fbclid=IwAR09Gi4PqNMgAObKH2LewvetXwlmrDD8oaXGtbHyBpxotecjijZB-X8LVaM
5. Turkish Foreign Minister declares EU/Turkey Deal ‘no longer functional’
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced on Tuesday that the Turkish government will no longer fulfil any of its commitments on the readmission of refugees under the EU/Turkey deal, because the EU has ‘failed to meet its own commitments’.
The Minister’s statement appeared to claim that nothing within the Deal was legitimate any longer because of what he (and the Turkish government, not unreasonably) sees as an EU failure to live up to the promises it made within it, but he stopped short of actively stating that the Turkish government will not – for example – continue to attempt to stop people leaving the state.
The EU/Turkey Deal came into effect on 20 March 2016, having been signed only days before.
It was an ‘emergency’ proposal, cobbled together after several EU member states, led by the UK, but later joined by Denmark, Spain and several Eastern European nations, rejected a previous plan to ‘divide’ refugees between EU member states.
It made a series of demands on Turkey, including that it must act to stop refugees leaving its borders – a measure which effectively turned the Turkish coastguard into a militia unit operating to ‘protect’ EU coastlines, rather than an organisation whose focus is to save lives – and that any refugees who did arrive would be sent back to Turkey (‘readmission’) and exchanged for refugees in Turkey who had made no effort to escape (an idea which makes sense as long as you go no further than thinking ‘this will discourage people to try to come unannounced’ and definitely don’t ask the question ‘who on Earth would benefit from Turkey having the refugees who have risked their lives to leave, and Europe having those who wanted to stay in Turkey?’).
The latter plan was an outright failure, as all of the statistics above make clear. It was also utterly immoral, and indeed entirely unnecessary: the EU was acting in panic, about an issue it was better-placed to deal with than literally any political body in the whole of human history, and out of that panic came the Deal: a completely unreasonable, poorly-considered, unpleasant agreement, in which the EU made a series of promises it was not only unable to deliver on, but which it would – as soon as the ‘emergency’ had stopped (in its eyes: and even then, only because the agreement had been signed) – no longer be willing to deliver on.
Chief among these commitments – made by the EU itself – were a promise to give Turkey €6bn by the end of 2018. Originally, it promised to hand over €2bn by the end of 2016, and another €2bn at the end of each of the following two years, but it never came close to meeting this deadline.
Having changed the deadline process (now the money was to be delivered in two chunks of €3bn) it did manage to meet the first, in a way. It had not handed over €3bn by the end of 2017, but it had, in the words of the EU Commission’s March 2019 report ‘EU Turkey Agreement Three Years On’ managed to ‘commit and contract €3bn… with more than €2bn disbursed.’
The report, issued three months after all €6bn was supposed to have been given to Turkey, also stated that: ‘The EU is currently mobilising the second tranche of Facility funding and has already committed €1.2 billion, of which €450 million has been contracted and €150 million disbursed.’
In other words, less than a sixth of the money which was supposed to have been handed over by 31 December 2018 had in fact even been contracted some three months later, less than one eighteenth had actually been handed over, and only just over a third had even been promised.
In working on this response, we see many sides to many organisations. The Turkish government has not been a particularly positive factor in the last three years (though it has taken more than three times as many Syrian refugees as the entire EU combined) but on this, it is possible to understand its frustrations.
However, as we noted in 2016, the money was only the smallest part of the Turkish government’s real desire from the Deal. What it wanted was Visa-free travel in Europe for all its citizens, and in the EU’s panic and desperation to save itself from innocent men, women and children fleeing war and terror, when Turkish negotiators asked for this, the EU immediately wrote it into the Deal.
We noted at the time that this was an enormous mistake. Whatever our opinions on Turkey and its membership or otherwise of the EU, the reason there was no Visa-free travel for Turkish citizens across Europe (an idea we do not necessarily oppose) was because Turkey was not a member of the EU, and the reason Turkey was not a member of the EU was that it had failed, in decades of negotiations, to meet the basic criteria for membership.
We also mentioned that in promising Visa-free travel, it was actively reducing its negotiating power with others who hoped to join, but had not yet, and was effectively showing the world that the principles for which it claimed to stand were in fact less important than preventing a few hundred thousand Syrian men, women and children from coming to Europe.
That may seem a harsh judgement. If so, we should note that we also commented that this Deal was effectively delivering Erdogan something he had always promised Turkish people, but had been unwilling to change positively to deliver, and in effect showing the country that the ‘strength’ of Erdogan was what Turkey needed, kicking the legs out from his opponents.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we pointed out that as soon as it awoke from its fever, the EU would realise that offering Visa-free travel in the EU to Turkish citizens would be, for most if not all of these reasons, impossible.
We would like to be clear: we do not, in principle, oppose the Visa-free travel of Turkish people in the EU. We would support, in fact, Visa-free travel for everyone, in all parts of the world. But we must note that the EU’s objections to Turkish Visa-free travel include some excellent points, such as Erdogan’s continued support for the death penalty, his effective transformation of himself into a lifelong dictator, his violence towards Kurdish and other people within Turkey and his refusal to abide by the rule of law: that is, in some very important ways, the EU’s position actually serves to protect Turkish people.
But the fact remains that the EU promised this. That we agree with its reasons for not delivering it and hope it will not, does not make Turkish politicians wrong to demand it is delivered. Neither does it make the situation any less embarrassing for everyone who agrees with the EU’s reasons for not delivering.
As we also predicted, it is this which – at least according to Cavusoglu – has led to the demise of the Deal (if, in fact, it has). He said: ‘We will not wait at the EU's door. The readmission agreement and visa-free deal will be put into effect at the same time.’
We do need – as always – to consider the extent to which an announcement by the Turkish government is entirely true, and the extent to which it is designed with several simultaneous motives in mind.
For example, we must accept that EU membership (with Visa-free travel as a distant, but nonetheless acceptable, second prize) was at the heart of Erdogan’s promise to Turkey for almost all of his career. He has covered his failure to deliver with claims that the EU is made up of ‘Nazis’ and politicians who ‘hate and fear Turkey’, but this does not alter the fact that up to now, the Turkish state has been carrying out the wishes of the EU with almost no reciprocation. This statement may well be a simple declaration that Turkey is not being ‘fooled’ any longer and things must change (again, the embarrassment is that unlike the claims about the EU’s opinions on Turkey, and the 'Nazi' accusation, the Turkish government actually does have a point).
Second, we should note that the Turkish government has not, for example, claimed it will also stop arresting Syrians at the border, or using its coastguard to prevent people leaving: that is, it seems as if the state is using its leverage to gain what it wants, rather than absolutely slamming the door shut on negotiation with the EU.
And the EU/Turkey readmissions system has hardly been a major success (in the three years March 2016-March 2019, just 2,441 people have been returned to Turkey, in part because of Greek law. Since 1 January this year, just 79 people have been removed under the agreement). The major ‘loser’ in any suspension or scrapping of the policy would probably be Nea Dimokratia, which claimed it would restart the process, even though – until now – it had never actually stopped.
Finally, we might regard it as part of an effort to embarrass, but also to threaten, not only the EU, but the wider Western world: a challenge to the West to show that it ‘wants’ Turkey. Because in the same interview, Cavusoglu said: ‘We will not leave NATO. That is impossible. But waiting at the EU’s door for more than 50 years is not possible… we will announce our new foreign policy initiatives at the start of August.’
In any case, it is worth noting that this is the first genuine negative statement about the EU/Turkey Deal to come from the Turkish government since late 2017. The major difference this time is that the Turkish Foreign Minister now states that the Deal is ‘no longer functional’. As we noted then, its criticisms are not entirely unreasonable: https://www.dailysabah.com/eu-affairs/2019/07/23/readmission-agreement-with-eu-no-longer-functional-ankara-says
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