Earlier this month, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visited Brussels to meet with top EU officials to find a resolution to the ongoing migration crisis on the Greek-Turkish border. The prevalent narrative is that the authoritarian leader of Turkey is blackmailing Europe by “unleashing” 3.6 million Syrian refugees who are currently residing on its territories.
This description portrays EU governments as benevolent, if slightly incompetent, actors who are trying their best but do not have the necessary resources to take care of so many refugees all at once.
Yet, this characterisation of Erdogan as a Machiavellian calculator and EU leaders being the victims of his genius and their own incompetence does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, Turkey showed much more solidarity and humanity towards refugees fleeing war and economic disaster than European leaders did.
Erdogan is an autocratic leader who is oppressing political dissent domestically – often by force. However, his response to the refugee crises has been largely laudable from a humanitarian perspective. Without going into the complexities of the Syrian war and assigning blame to the various international actors, it is worthwhile to remember which countries helped the most in times of need. Two of the neighbouring countries of Syria especially stand out when it comes to assisting refugees: Turkey and Lebanon. The former welcomed 3.6 million Syrian refugees and the latter accepted 1.5 million people.
Erdogan might have been motivated by selfish political reasons at the start. Throughout Erdogan’s political career, his aim was to portray himself as the de facto leader of the region and expand the Ottoman influence abroad. Part of this vision was the solidarity towards other Muslims in the region. During a 2018 Party Congress, he promised that Turkey “will not stop until we rescue our brothers in Syria”. However, he has paid a high political price for his stance on Syrian refugees ever since.
The support for refugees the Turkish population is fading away quickly. Whereas in 2014 many thought that the crisis is only going to last a few years and refugees would return home thereafter, there seems to be no end in sight to the misery of Syrians. 80 per cent of the native population in Turkey is against keeping the refugees and Erdogan seems to be the most refugee-friendly politician in sight, with virtually all opposition parties demanding an end to the current situation.
Meanwhile, the attitudes in EU countries towards refugees have significantly hardened. Whereas during the 2015 crisis Germany and Sweden showed significant solidarity and promised to accommodate as many refugees as possible, they made a complete U-turn on those promises since. Countries that were hardliners then, such as Hungary or Austria, are now considered mainstream on migration policies.
The 2016 deal between Turkey and the EU allowed governments to continue kicking down the can and not agree on coherent internal policies and a common stance on the refugee issue. Come 2020 and Erdogan feels the political pressure domestically as a result of the Syrian attack on Turkish soldiers. As a result, he decides to put additional pressure on EU leaders to save himself some popularity and allows some of the refugees to head towards to Greek border.
The 2016 deal between Turkey and the EU that effectively stopped refugees from attempting to enter the EU was highly problematic from a humanitarian perspective. Although some of the EU funds have been used to improve the conditions of refugees in Turkey, it is certain that many of them could have pursued better opportunities in EU countries.
However, European leaders decided to prioritise their re-election chances over the needs of the most vulnerable. Spanish MEP García Pérez complained that “over the last few days, we have seen the very dangerous attitude of the president of Turkey using vulnerable people in order to benefit himself and his politics”. She is certainly right, using refugees as pawns on the chessboard is condemnable. Yet, this is exactly what European leaders have been doing since the 2016 migration pact with Turkey.
After five years of delay, EU governments should immediately agree on a common stance towards refugees and ensure that there are legal, easy ways to settle in the EU. Paying off autocratic leaders to keep the “problem” away is both unsustainable and morally reprehensible for a union of countries which prides itself on being a beacon of liberal, humanitarian values.