Turkey, the EU, and the Refugee Agreement

by Robert Olson

The tentative agreement reached on March 7 between Turkey and the European Union on refugees marks a significant change in how the two entities will deal with such crises in the future. The agreement is to be voted on in Brussels on March 17-18, and there will certainly be many changes, differences and addendums after the signing.

The breakthrough in negotiations came when Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated that Turkey would be willing to take back the several thousand illegal immigrants currently stranded on Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. This is in addition to the 13-14,000 refugees stranded on Greece’s border with Macedonia. The agreement stresses that Turkey will admit refugees from Asia, Africa, and North Africa, and not just Syria. Syrian refugees comprise an estimated 40 percent of refugees attempting to enter Europe via Greece. Davutoglu’s proposal refers only to Syrian refugees.

Davultoglu stated that Turkey would resettle one Syrian refugee from camps in Greece in return for the EU settling one Syrian refugee from camps in Turkey—a straight one-to-one exchange. In return, Turkey wanted another 3 billion Euros in addition to the 3.2 billion it demanded in previous negotiations. This 3 billion Euros would be parceled out in installments through 2018. Some EU countries are likely to contest these amounts.

What Both Sides Want

Davutoglu’s offer was welcomed by most EU officials, who are divided, frustrated, and perplexed about how to address the festering immigrant and political crises confronting Europe as well as the influx of around one million immigrants over the past three-and-a-half years. Conservative and right-wing political leaders consider this influx an existential threat to European cultures and civilization.

There was immediate disagreement as to just what the proposal meant and how it should be interpreted. On March 10, just three days after Davutoglu’s proposal, Turkey’s EU Minister Volkan Bozkir made it clear that the readmission of Syrian refugees to Turkey would not apply to Syrian refugees who had already resettled in European countries. Bozkir stressed, “Whoever is currently on Greek islands through illegal migration is definitely not part of this deal. It would be more accurate to say the number of migrants to be returned to Turkey in the event of a readmission agreement with the EU will then be in the thousands or tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands or millions.” Bozkir emphasized the phrase “in the event of a readmission agreement,” implying there were many negotiations ahead.

Bozkir stressed that Turkey would not allow EU countries to “cherry-pick” refugees and select educated, professionals, engineers, and doctors who could be integrated into some European countries. An estimated 1,500 Syrian doctors are already employed in EU countries.

As part of the proposed deal, Turkey also demanded that Turks receive visa-free access to Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone. Schengen refers to the Luxembourg city where, in 1985, Europe abolished its internal borders, enabling passport-free travel in countries that adhere to the agreement (not all of which do)

Civil and human rights organizations have expressed immediate concerns about sending refugees back to Turkey without any guarantee for their legal, civil, or human rights protection as cited by international and European law.

Davutoglu also emphasized that it was a good time for Europe to re-open and press forward with five more outstanding chapters regarding Turkey’s application to become a member of the EU.

What About the Kurds?

Largely unreported in much of the European and Turkish press—though covered extensively by the Kurdish press—the proposed agreement has much to do with Turkey’s war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its politically affiliated Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK). Both of these organizations have close relations with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed forces (YPG). The difference between the PKK and PYD/YPG is that while both are fighting against the Islamic State in Syria, the PKK is in a bitter war with Turkey in the heavily Kurdish region of southeast Turkey. By squashing the PKK/KCK and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey would more easily project its geo-political and geo-economic power into northern Syria.

It is this war against the Kurds that prompted Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to Tehran on March 4 just prior to his visit to Brussels where he proffered the above-mentioned deal. In Tehran, Davutoglu spoke with Iranian Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri as well as with President Hassan Rouhani about trade and regional issues. The two sides reported that they were “determined to manage differences in order to reach stability in the region,” This means closer cooperation in managing Kurdish nationalist movements in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq.

The differences between Ankara and Tehran—over trade, gas and oil and alliances— are well known. Turkey long supported the Islamic State and probably still does though it has recently shifted its support to other jihadist and anti-Assad groups. Turkey is aligned with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab Persian Gulf states along with Sunnis in Iraq and Syria and, to some extent, Hamas. It also has strong relations with Israel and is currently negotiating the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. Iran, meanwhile, supports the Iraqi Shi’a, the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shi’a minorities in Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Persian Gulf countries. It is also aligned with Russia.

But Davutoglu’s visit to Tehran does not seem to be directly connected to any of the above differences. Rather, Ankara and Tehran want to come to a better understanding about what to do regarding Kurdish nationalist movements throughout the Middle East, the coercive management of which they have jointly implemented for more than 100 years.

Davutoglu’s visit has come on the heels of what Ankara regards as a successful war against the PKK/KCK in southeast Turkey and, indeed, against the Kurdish nationalist movement throughout Turkey, including the Democratic People’s Party (HDP). On March 10, just six days after his visit to Tehran to discuss Kurdish nationalists and just three days before his announced plan to deal with Europe’s immigrant and refugee problems, Davutoglu applied to parliament on March 10 to lift the immunity of “senior pro-Kurdish opposition MPs in order to prosecute them on charges of belonging to an armed terrorist group.” The senior opposition includes the HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirta? and Figen Yukselda? as well as four other senior deputies of the HDP.

In other words, Turkey sees this “breakthrough”—if, indeed, it does come about—as a way to destroy the most viable Kurdish nationalist opposition forces in Turkey and, when the time is ripe, in Syria as well.

Even as Europeans deal a smashing blow to human, immigrant, and refugee rights in Europe, they are also abandoning any pretense of concern for thousands of people in Turkey, including scores of journalists, who have opposed and been imprisoned for criticizing the growing authoritarianism of the ruling party. Indeed, Europeans, like Americans, have supported Turkey’s savage war against the PKK/KCK even as the PKK along with the PYD/YPG are valiantly fighting against the Islamic State and other jihadist militias in the U.S.-led “global war on terrorism.”

A further irony is that Ankara is now soliciting Tehran, with its own 10 million Kurds, to aid in its managing of Kurdish nationalism throughout the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq. Apparently Ankara and Tehran, anticipating the complete fragmentation of Syria and the partition of Iraq, de facto or de jure, think they have much to cooperate on. But human, civil, migrant, legal, minority, and ethnic rights—or even sociocide as the case in Syria—are not on their list of priorities.


Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.