Immigration Politics: The EU-Turkey Deal on Outsourcing Refugees (Part I)

The refugee crisis is one of the biggest challenges the European Union has ever faced. According to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it dwarfs even the eurozone debt problem. More than one million refugees fleeing war and persecution, along with some migrants escaping poverty, came to Europe by sea in 2015, increasing each year.

The states within the EU do not have a collective stance on the crisis. Many EU states by closing their borders and imposing quotas on the number of refugees who can apply for asylum, have failed to adhere to the European rules and ignored international laws.

To tackle the refugee crisis, the EU strategized plans to outsource refugees arriving on the shores of EU states. The outsourcing not only involved their physical immigration status but also “outsourcing responsibility” the EU owed to these refugees and asylum seekers. The notions of responsibility owed to the refugees and asylum seekers arriving at the shores of European states will be further deliberated upon in part two. Such outsourcing deals between states also involve the role of multinational corporations. 

Agreed in March 2016, the EU-Turkey deal is a statement of cooperation between European states and the Turkish government. It seeks to control the crossing of refugees and migrants from Turkey to the Greek islands and was initially intended to curb the large numbers of refugees arriving in Europe  or losing their lives on the way in 2015.

This deal was brokered by McKinsey&Company, an elite US management consultancy, who offered the European Union leaders to set in motion the deal with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees and asylum seekers to the continent’s shores. The management consultancy company initially drew up proposals – free of charge – for implementing the EU-Turkey Agreement for the Commission. Employees of the company had previously held talks with representatives of the Commission’s Structural Reform Support Service (SRSS). In the absence of a call for tenders, the company then won a contract worth nearly a million euros. The brief involved analysing the situation on the Greek islands and drawing up an ‘action plan’. McKinsey worked on this with the SRSS, the EASO, the EU’s border protection agency Frontex and the Greek authorities.

The crux of the deal was that every person arriving irregularly (i.e. by boat, without official permission or passage) to the Greek islands – including asylum-seekers – would be returned to Turkey. In exchange, the EU Member States would take one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every Syrian returned from the islands.

The EU had agreed to pay Turkey six billion euros if it would take back asylum seekers who had reached Greece – many of them fleeing fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan – and prevent others from trying to cross its borders. 

The pact – which human rights groups said put at risk the very right to seek refuge – was deeply controversial, but so is the previously unknown extent of McKinsey’s influence over its implementation, and the lengths some EU bodies went to conceal that role. Moreover, Amnesty International noted that it is untrue but willfully ignored the premise that Turkey is a safe country for refugees and asylum-seekers. 

For European states, the deal had clear benefits: it externalized their borders and reduced the number of refugees who would arrive in their countries. However, it had deleterious effects for thousands of refugees – and, in practice, violated international law and norms of refugee protection. Since then, thousands of people have been abandoned in inappropriate and hostile living conditions across Europe, with little access to sufficient physical, psychological, and legal support.

For Turkey in addition to monetary compensation of six billion euros, a number of political gestures were made towards the Turkish government. These included the revival of E.U. accession talks, visa-free travel for Turkish nationals to the EU, customs union reform and a Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme that would provide for the resettlement of greater numbers of Syrians. 

In reality, the EU-Turkey agreement has set a dangerous precedent by putting at risk the very principle of the right to seek refuge. It sends a message that protection for refugees can be commodified, outsourced, and deflected. The normalization of such a deal poses a great risk to the future of refugee protection. It has, in essence, outsourced border control in exchange for cash and political gestures – and done so at great cost to refugees.

Vedaansh Kaushik is a sophomore at Ashoka University studying Economics and International Relations. 

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