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The proposed “one in, one out” deal that would return thousands of migrants to Turkey from Greece is being hailed as a “breakthrough” by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. But it’s a breakthrough with damaging knock-on effects – including the resurrection of “Fortress Europe”.
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For all the ballyhoo surrounding Europe’s would-be refugee swap with Turkey, the emerging deal is a blow to the jugular of Merkel’s hopes of keeping populists and xenophobes from wrecking the foundations of European unity.
To be sure, the outline agreement reached this week in Brussels is a work in progress. There’s lots of fine print still to be ironed out.
But whatever the agreement’s final shape, it promises to slam shut Merkel’s “open door” to those fleeing imminent danger and destitution.
In the longer term, it is likely to usher in a more insular EU, one in which the passport-free travel zone known as Schengen may be salvaged – but without any guarantees that it would withstand a future bout of adversity.
The deal, in other words, is Europe cutting off its nose to spite its face: The solution is likely to cause greater lasting damage than the immediate emergency it’s meant to address.
EU leaders, cognizant of the bind they are in, are juggling the clashing imperatives of humanitarian decency and political expediency.
They are framing the proposal as a lesser-of-several-evils solution to a migration maelstrom that shows few signs of abating.
If stopping people from making perilous journeys across the Aegean Sea – and thwarting the smugglers who act as their enablers – means treading more lightly with an autocratic Turkish leader who openly flouts Europe’s democratic values, then so be it, runs the unspoken argument.
“The days of irregular migration are over,” the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, declared optimistically shortly after the conclusion of this week’s summit in Brussels.
But human rights groups and others are a lot more leery. They are raising red flags about both the legality and feasibility of a one-for-one swap.
The UNHCR suggests the “blanket terms” of the sketchy deal would violate international human rights laws. It points to the prohibition on the “collective expulsion of foreigners” in the European Convention on Human Rights.
Amnesty International, for its part, objects to the proposed designation of Turkey as a “safe country”, noting that Turkish authorities have forcibly returned refugees to Syria.
The deal raises the prospect of a wholesale transfer of thousands of migrants – there are 30,000 in Greece alone, some 13,000 of whom are stranded on its northern border with Macedonia – unable to pass through since the latter joined its western Balkan neighbours in halting refugee crossings.
These refugees, once back in Turkey, would have to re-join the asylum queue – at the very end.
It is unclear whether refugees who already have asylum applications in process in Greece would also be subject to deportation. But the sweeping terms of the deal imply that this may, indeed, be the case.
The hope is that this would relieve Greece, already reeling under painful austerity and stretched to breaking point, of its refugee bottleneck.
The refugees sent back to Turkey would join the estimated 2.7 million already on Turkish soil. A tiny fraction of these displaced people would then be eligible for direct resettlement in Europe – bypassing a treacherous sea journey.
But even if this scheme were to go to plan, it would still leave millions of migrants in Turkey and its neighbours, with ambitions and hopes of their own.
Europe is promising to double its aid to Turkey to around $6 billion to help Turkey provide incentives for migrants on its soil to stay put – namely by offering job opportunities and schooling for their children.
Some observers say the arrangement boils down to Turkey taking back more migrants in return for Europe keeping mum – or at least not kicking up as much as a fuss – about Turkey’s alleged human rights violations and recent crackdown on a free press.
Others are blunter – saying it amounts to outsourcing Europe’s migrants to Turkey. Under the deal, Turkey would be deemed a “safe country”, allowing Europe to send refugees its way without violating international law banning any transfer that might put a refugee in harm’s way.
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