The threat made by Turkey: a guide
Updated: Jan 14
Since the immoral and illegal EU/Turkey Deal was enacted on 20 March 2016, it seems as if we have written almost once a week about the latest ‘threat’ from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or the latest claim from the Greek government that Turkey has ‘opened the floodgates’ to let refugees move from Turkey to Greece.
It cannot be so often. But in the wake of the latest threat from Turkey’s President, we felt it may be helpful and useful to gather and repeat some of the points most relevant to this matter – notably that a) Erdogan is not capable of ‘sending’ Syrian or other people to the EU and b) he has no intention of doing so even if he were.
We will also note that there almost certainly will be an increase in the number of people attempting to enter the EU from the East in the next six months, that this will have little or nothing to do with Erdogan directly ‘sending them’ and that the best and indeed only way to respond both to Erdogan’s empty threat and the reality of the situation is to alter the EU's approach to the entire refugee situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.
Please communicate this message to your supporters because it is important for people to be aware that this threat is extremely unlikely to be acted upon and that the EU must act, and swiftly, to be fully prepared for the increase in arrivals which is very likely to take place in the coming months – action which would also neutralise this latest threat.
i. the latest threat
Earlier today (Thursday 10 October 2019) President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the EU – via a speech made to the Turkish parliament – that: ‘We (Turkey) will open the gates and send 3.6m refugees your way,’ if the EU ‘calls our operation in Northern Syria an invasion or occupation.’
He spoke in the wake of a statement by the EU, issued late on Wednesday (in part, it was issued late because Hungary originally vetoed the statement), in which the bloc demanded Turkey ‘cease the unilateral military action’ against Kurdish people in Northern Syria, about which we issued notes on Monday.
It also criticised Turkey’s plan to create a North Syrian ‘safe zone’ – into which it plans to force ‘more than two million’ Syrian men, women and children currently in Turkey (detailed in Tuesday’s guidance) – commenting: ‘(the plan) would not satisfy international criteria for refugee return as laid down by UNHCR.’
Of course, it will not. Not only that, it will be delivered only by the murder and/or forced movement of tens of thousands of Kurdish people and will probably result in the mass slaughter of the Syrian people forced to enter the ‘zone’.
ii. context 1: Turkey’s Syria plan
This threat was widely reported in part because of the (completely justified) horror with which the latest ‘development’ in the Syrian Civil War – the invasion of Northern Syria by Turkey assisted by the Free Syrian Army (referred to by Turkey and some others as the ‘Syrian National Army’ – Assad’s regime-force is known as the Syrian Arab Army) – has been met by most people in the West.
But it is far from the first time Erdogan has made such a threat, and neither is it a pledge on which he can seriously deliver: neither, in fact, is its major point either to be delivered on, or to be taken particularly seriously – as a threat – by the EU.
Erdogan’s plan for Northern Syria has – as outlined in the notes cited above – developed in the last seven years from a simple (and genuine) desire to create a ‘buffer zone’ between Turkey and Assad’s Syria, into a scheme to ‘clear’ the region of the YPG and by extension Syrian Democratic Force, probably also of the Kurdish PYD political party and quite likely also of most or all Kurdish civilians (this clearance could be forced movement, but will definitely also include – indeed has already included – killing), and then to force millions of Syrian people currently under temporary protection in Turkey, into a 30km x 480km ‘safe zone’ along the Turkish border with Syria.
The latest actions and designs have been driven in part by Turkey’s internal politics (with Erdogan’s AKP party losing ground to the CHP, which despite Western ideas that it is ‘liberal’ – largely because of its secular Kemalist traditions – campaigns for Syrian people to be forced back to Syria) and in part because Turkey believes the PYD and YPG to be terrorists (a designation with which the rest of the world does not agree) which threaten Turkey and are now armed with US weapons.
It’s a plan which relies on murder, and will almost certainly result in greater murder if Syrian people are ever forced into the so-called ‘safe zone’.
iii. context 2: Erdogan’s threat
As we mentioned at the start of this note, claims about Turkey ‘opening’ – and by Turkey that it will ‘open’ – ‘the (flood)gates’ have happened on numerous occasions since the EU/Turkey Deal, under which the Turkish coastguard is ordered to act as a(n illegal) sea militia ‘protecting’ the EU from refugees, was enacted on 20 March 2016.
Syriza, the government of Greece, claimed five times in the three years to 2019 that Turkey ‘had opened the floodgates’, while Nea Dimokratia has made the same claim three times since its election in July this year – in fact, three times in the three months from 7 July to 19 September.
Turkish politicians – normally Erdogan himself, but also others including the state’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu – have threatened to ‘end’ the deal and ‘open the (flood)gates’ on at least eight occasions, usually for the (in fact, sadly correct) reason that the EU has missed every single deadline for it to carry out its obligations as set out in the deal, but also because of illegal drilling off the coast of Cyprus and during political squabbles between Erdogan and EU member states.
An enormous list of commentators and analysts – starting in June 2016, less than three months after the Deal began, when IRIN ran a story headlined ‘The Deal is Dead; What is Plan B?’ - have also 'called time' on the Deal.
We ourselves have warned that the Deal – aside from being deeply immoral and in direct contravention of international law on refugees – has been ‘on the brink’ on more than one occasion, not least because the EU has so far failed to give Turkish people visa-free travel throughout the bloc, which it promised to deliver by June 2016 (inspiring IRIN’s piece. In fairness, the reason it hasn’t is because under its own regulations, it can’t, but nevertheless: it did promise to do so) and has handed over just €2.8bn of the €6bn it promised to deliver in two sections: the first in December 2016 and the second in December 2018.
But we have to note that every report of the Deal’s death – however much we may want it and for it to be replaced with something far better (which would not be difficult) – has so far proved premature.
As an example of why this might be, the last time Erdogan threatened to ‘open the gates’ was 4 September, when he warned he ‘would’ do it ‘if the EU does not back’ the ‘safe zone’ plan.
Far from ‘backing’ it, the EU more than a month later has openly demanded that Turkey cease operations in Northern Syria and pointed out that the ‘safe zone’ would break international law (though Turkey is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention of the rights of the refugee).
Yet Erdogan’s response is to threaten that if the EU refers to his actions as an ‘invasion’ (which it is) and his plan as an ‘occupation’ (a description for which there is a sensible argument) then he will ‘open the gates’ for Syrian people to travel to Europe.
So, what is going on?
iv. so, what is going on?
We should begin very quickly by noting – again – what the problems are with Erdogan’s threat, and then we will look briefly at why he keeps making it, and is making it now.
We will also note – here and now – that the EU/Turkey Deal absolutely could fall apart at any moment, not least because the EU simply hasn’t fulfilled a single one of its obligations as set out in it. But we advise that this should be irrelevant because the EU really needs to alter its attitude and response to the Mediterranean refugee situation as soon as possible: not because of Erdogan, but because of reality. We will follow-up on this point at the end of this document.
The first – and major – problem with the threat is that Erdogan literally cannot deliver on it. He knows this, even as he uses it for what it is worth, which we shall come to.
That is, Erdogan is well aware that there is no ‘(flood)gate’, that he does not ‘control’ the movement of Syrian men, women and children and that the idea that there are 3.67m Syrian people (the number of Syrian people registered as being under ‘temporary protection’ by the Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management) sitting on packed suitcases just waiting for a nod from the Turkish President is not only untrue, but also faintly ridiculous.
The Turkish coastguard, despite being illegally employed by the EU as a sea militia, has actually done its job reasonably well.
In the last three months, nine days (to yesterday, 9 October), 25,946 men, women and children have arrived by sea in Greece, from the East. In the same period, the Turkish coastguard has stopped 28,549 people. We will come back to these figures, but the point here is that the coastguard is stopping more people than are arriving in Greece at present.
Even so, there are 3.67 million Syrian people registered in Turkey at present. The numbers of people even making any attempt to leave at present is a tiny fraction of that – less than 1.5 per cent of the population of registered Syrian people (we might also note that in recent months, the single largest group of people making the journey are not Syrian, but Afghani nationals).
One reason for this extraordinarily low number may, of course, be the EU/Turkey Deal itself.
But an at least equally-important factor is that the majority of Syrian people in Turkey simply don’t want to leave Turkey for the EU – at least not yet.
Because Syrian people came to Turkey to escape war, chaos, terror and death. Some certainly wanted to reach the EU, and indeed many did (1,006,481 people arrived between January 2015 and March 2016, 855,029 of them in 2015), but most did not, as shown by the situation in Turkey today.
Two in every six Syrian people in Turkey have jobs – roughly equivalent to two people in every family. Most have taken the absolute lowest-paid and most precarious labour, in part because that is all it’s possible to get in a country where you don’t speak the language and few people accept your qualifications, but also in part because they have no intention of staying in Turkey, or of travelling elsewhere: they want to go home.
They have taken survival-level jobs and stayed as close as possible to Syria without being there to be slaughtered, to wait and see what happens, and so if they can, they can quickly return home.
This is backed-up by the Syrian Barometer, one of the few national studies on the experience of Syrian people in Turkey (and Turkish people’s attitudes towards them). Last year (a 2019 version has not yet been released) the Barometer found that 74 per cent of Syrian people in Turkey intended to return to Syria when the war ended (though, as is equally important, as we shall see later, just 12 per cent said they would return ‘regardless of who wins the war’).
Erdogan simply doesn’t have the capacity to ‘open the gates’ and force ‘millions’ of Syrians into the EU.
A second, though far smaller problem (because of course anyone can change their mind) is that in any case, Erdogan doesn’t want to force Syrian people to the EU, for a number of reasons, including that he still hopes that the visa-free travel for all Turkish people might be delivered by the EU (the cash would also be welcome, but is a lower priority, because Erdogan knows he is likely never to deliver his promise to deliver Turkey into the EU, and the visa-free status would count as a significant step under those circumstances).
What he wants – a significant reason he is now invading Northern Syria – is to move two-thirds of the Syrian people in Turkey into a 30km x 480km strip of Northern Syria, in part to alter the demographic make-up of the region.
A third reason is simply that it is better – in Turkey and internationally – for Erdogan to have access to a threat to throw at the EU, especially one as embarrassing as this one. If he ever had to carry it out – and he would not realistically be able to – he would lose the cachet and leverage he and his party now have in Turkey and in EU-related affairs.
And that is why Erdogan and his government keep making the threat: because as long as Turkey is regarded as ‘powerful’ and/or having something which could ‘damage’ the EU (Syrian people absolutely would not damage the EU: quite the opposite. But Erdogan knows there are large parts of the EU which believe they would), Erdogan and AKP are regarded by Turkish people as ‘strong’ and ‘keeping Turkey relevant and powerful in international politics’.
Equally, as long as Greece continues to claim Erdogan is or has ‘opening/opened the floodgates’, Erdogan and AKP believe they have genuine bargaining power. Once again, the fact that the EU has not met a single one of its obligations under the Deal strengthens Turkey’s hand considerably.
But in this specific instance, the threat has two further advantages. First, the political debate in Turkey about Syrian people has seen both AKP and its main opposition CHP agree that Syrian people are a ‘burden’ on Turkey (they are not, but that is dealt with elsewhere in brief, and we will return to it another time), but with AKP arguing that Turkey should shoulder that ‘burden’ and CHP promising to force Syrians back to Syria.
In the wake of the Turkish economic collapse of 2017-19, attitudes towards Syrian people became far more negative in Turkey, and AKP lost votes which it (only partially correctly) attributes to this Syrian debate.
The threat, therefore, is a means by which Erdogan gets to ‘shift blame’ and simultaneously pose as being ‘tough’ and determined to remove Syrian people from Turkey, which he and AKP believe will help them recover popularity.
Secondly, however, and to a far greater extent, it is a means by which Erdogan hopes to ‘move the debate on’.
He and his party are well aware that almost no-one on Earth actually believes that the invasion of North Syria is acceptable, or that his plans for a Northern Syrian ‘safe zone’ are sensible or likely to deliver anything other than more misery, and almost certainly death, to large numbers of Syrian men, women and children.
But he is also aware that as soon as he ‘moves’ the conversation to focus on the EU, he can highlight the facts – and they are facts – that Turkey, population 79.8m, has accepted far more than three times as many Syrian people as the EU, which has a population of 508m people, and is the richest political bloc to have existed in all of human history, and that large parts of the EU panicked when 800,000 people arrived on its shores (and many people within the EU, and many of their governments, really did panic).
This is why his threat so closely follows the language of the Greek government: ‘gates’ and ‘floodgates’, even though Erdogan and AKP know neither exist.
Effectively, Erdogan’s threat is not so much a warning he will do something – because he cannot and it would not be clearly in his interest to do so – but a ‘question’ about what the EU is, and why it feels it has the right to criticise Turkey.
v. what should ‘we’ and the EU do?
The fact that the EU has behaved abysmally in response to the Mediterranean refugee situation, however, does not change the fact that it is correct to object to the massacre and forced movement of Kurdish people (which is being carried out by Turkey), or indeed the mass slaughter of Syrian people (which will result from the creation of the ‘safe zone’).
So what should it do?
First of all, the EU – and we as organisations and individuals – should not be frightened by undeliverable threats, or indeed embarrassed out of speaking out against wild injustice and poor policies. In the EU’s case, it must not be frightened or embarrassed out of acting.
But it and we can and should do something else as well.
Because as noted above, in the last three months and nine days, 25,946 men, women and children have arrived in Greece. In July, 5,066 people arrived – the highest number since March 2016, when the EU/Turkey Deal came into effect.
In August, the number increased by 51 per cent, to 7,655, and in September, increased again, this time to 10,777, an increase of almost 41 per cent.
So far this month, 2,460 people have arrived. Should arrivals continue at the same rate for the rest of the month, 8,473 people would land in Greece in October as a whole – lower than the number in September, but still higher than July and August, which were both the months in which the highest number of people arrived, before being overtaken by the month which followed.
We do not know – and it is shocking and unacceptable that we do not – exactly why they have come, though we have talked about a variety of potential reasons elsewhere.
Those reasons, if true, are ongoing: the proposed withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan ‘freeing’ the Taliban to focus more on chasing down those who object to it, and those who have fought against it; the continued forcing of Syrian men, women and children back to Syria by Lebanon; Turkey’s plans and activity; and – perhaps most telling of all in the medium-term – the fact that in as far as anyone will ‘win’ the Syrian Civil War (which will likely continue as a series of desert guerrilla strikes and counter-strikes for anything up to 15 years) it will almost certainly be Assad, and almost certainly soon.
Idlib is the last battle of the Syrian Civil War as it now exists, and it is almost impossible for anyone to imagine Assad, Iran, Hizbollah and the Russian air force losing it.
The point being that while Erdogan certainly cannot ‘open the (flood)gates’, we absolutely are entering the third stage of the refugee response, if we have not already entered it.
In the next six to 12 months, and in many cases now, 6.5 million people – 3.67m registered Syrians in Turkey, plus an estimated 400,000 more unregistered, as well as roughly one million Afghans and Iraqi people in the same country, and 1.5m Syrian men, women and children in Lebanon – are considering and/or will consider their next move.
Almost all will not be able to return to Syria.
Not all will decide to come to the EU – though the thought will likely occur to all of them – but should only one in six decide to try, that would still be more than one million people, roughly ten times as many as have arrived between 1 January 2017 and today.
The EU must – and we must advise it to – prepare in the following ways:
we must be prepared for the arrivals: we do not need more Frontex officers (it is, in any case, illegal under international law to turn asylum seekers away from your border), but more people to deliver aid; food, clothing, water, and far better shelter – not tents and detention centres – for them to stay in when they arrive
we must end the EU/Turkey Deal and in its place we must do what we should have done in 2015: take control of the routes by which refugees travel by providing safe transport for them, and then making sure they have decent, warm, dry and safe places to stay, with electricity, hot water, decent showers and wi-fi, while their asylum applications are processed
we must ensure that the EU as a whole is ready to and does offer places for the people whose applications are accepted, to live and to thrive. We, as organisations and individuals, must make the case far better that refugees are not a ‘burden’ on society, but bring skills, knowledge and determination: they are a benefit to us all. The EU must ensure that each member state offers places, that no-one is ‘left behind’ and that each state that needs it – if it needs it – receives the help it needs, in exchange
The EU can afford this. And we can deliver it.
And the advantage is not just that it will improve (and save) the lives of huge numbers of innocent – and talented – men, women and children, but that it will also remove from Turkey the ability to ‘threaten’ the EU and prevent it from speaking out on the murder of Kurdish people, or setting-up the murder (which Turkey does not, in fact, want) by Assad of ‘more than two million’ Syrian men, women and children in the so-called ‘safe zone’.