As Afghans flee Taliban rule, expect more Alan Kurdis

Refugees will find it near-impossible to enter Turkey and the EU, which could pave the way for great tragedy

Six years ago around this time, a great tide of desperate humanity from Syria as well as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and beyond, washed up on Greek shores before flooding the Balkans and throwing Western Europe into a panic.

When several EU states altered their asylum laws to allow for more applicants, 100,000 new arrivals surged onto trains headed west. On September 1, Hungary shut Budapest’s overcrowded main train station, leading to scenes of chaos that spurred thousands more to embark on a 150-kilometre stroll to Austria. The next day, Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach, capturing in a single image the refugees’ harrowing journey and the price of western indifference.

The then UN refugee chief, Antonio Guterres, now UN Secretary General, aptly dubbed it “a defining moment” for the EU. The agreement the bloc made with Turkey six months later to halt the refugee flow has come to define Ankara’s ties with the EU, and to some extent Europe’s vision of itself.

For agreeing to curb smuggling, accept the EU’s rejected asylum-seekers and indefinitely host some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Ankara received €6 billion ($7bn) in refugee support. Turkey has done its part: from 856,000 migrant arrivals in Greece in 2015 to fewer than 10,000 last year and barely half that total so far this year.

This explains why the EU now hopes to top up its refugee credit by handing Turkey €3bn more. And with as many as a million Afghans looking to flee Taliban rule and potentially spark another refugee wave, EU officials have hinted at expanding the deal to include Afghans, suggesting Turkey as an ideal sanctuary.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week refused to serve as “Europe’s refugee warehouse", a nod to growing resentment within Turkey towards being left to host four million refugees indefinitely. What Mr Erdogan has not done, however, is call on the EU to accelerate Turkey’s accession process to the bloc, which was also part of the March 2016 agreement.

In reality the deal ensures precisely the opposite. Turkey’s accession talks began with great hope in 2005 and made significant progress in the early years. They have stalled since 2016, which is no surprise. After all, if the EU is paying Turkey to be a refugee-hosting centre, then Turkey cannot be made an EU member because that would mean freedom of movement for people from one member state to another.

Not long after the refugee deal was signed, an EU review called for an expansion of its customs union arrangement with Turkey, an update that could nearly double trade between the two. Still today delegations meet with some regularity and offer bland statements about customs union progress, including as recently as June, but there has been near-zero movement.

A handout picture taken and released by the Turkish presidential press office shows Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) shaking hands with European Council’s President Charles Michel (L) at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on March 4, 2020. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Council President Charles Michel met with Erdogan and other top officials in Ankara on Wednesday, promising an additional 170 million euros ($189 million) in aid for vulnerable groups in Syria.  - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / MURAT CETINMUHURDAR " - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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Both sides are quietly happy with the Kabuki. Turkey would be the EU’s largest state by population, and that population is 90 per cent Muslim – a prospect that leaves many EU voters clutching their pearls. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, sort of a de facto EU leader in recent years, has long advocated a “privileged partnership” with Turkey, rather than membership. Thus, the anti-democratic steps of the Erdogan regime provide the EU with the perfect cover, enabling it to halt negotiations and say the pause is about violations of the "Copenhagen criteria", which define whether a country is eligible to join the EU.

For Turkey, Europe and the West more broadly are increasingly viewed as an adversary, rather than an ally, as well as in decline. Consider that Ankara’s foreign policy doctrine Blue Homeland springs from the idea that Greece and the West pose a threat to Turkey that must be constantly pushed back.

Turkish ships have challenged Greece, Cyprus and France in the eastern Mediterranean. Ankara made a maritime borders deal with Libya that all but ignored the presence of Greece. Turkey backs a two-state solution for Cyprus – a non-starter for the EU – and has stationed its advanced military drones on the island. Turkey ignores supposedly binding decisions by top European bodies, such as the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling calling for the release of leading Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas.

The list goes on, yet still the EU refrains from sanctions. Turkey represents just 3.6 per cent of EU trade, while the EU represents more than one third of Turkish trade. The EU could cripple Turkey economically, so why does Ankara get a free pass?

Refugees, of course. And Turkey is all too well aware of how much the EU needs its help on migration. Mr Erdogan sent a reminder early last year when he announced the opening of Turkey’s European border. This spurred thousands of refugees in Turkey to head to the Greek border, where they clashed with Greek authorities.

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Both the EU and Turkey are quietly happy with the Kabuki

Unable to punish Turkey and politically horrified by the prospect of millions of new arrivals, the EU has embraced “Fortress Europe". Greece, dubbed Europe’s shield, has built a wall along its land border with Turkey and reportedly begun hauling migrants back into Turkish waters even after they have arrived on Greek islands. Poland and Lithuania are also building border walls, to stop those who may seek alternative entry points.

Denmark alone has sent some 200 Syrians back to their still violence-ridden homeland, while EU states have shipped more than 1,200 Afghans back home. And earlier this month, as the Taliban prepared to take Kabul, six EU states urged the European Commission to allow such returns to continue, although some of them had suspended their own deportations temporarily. Afghanistan, where people are literally dying to get out – clinging to the side of airplanes, getting trampled in a stampede or blown to bits outside Kabul airport – is where the EU wants to send people.

Turks feel much the same way. With hundreds of Afghans slipping into the country every day, the main opposition Republican People’s Party has gained political ground this summer by vowing to send all Syrians home if it were to come to power.

Sensing the tide, the ruling Justice and Development Party has made a show of detaining and returning thousands of Afghans and building a wall along its rugged border with Iran. Pakistan, too, is building a wall along its Afghan border, while Iran may be collaborating with the Taliban to keep Afghans out.

This is all mere prelude. The real action starts now, as perhaps a million Afghans endeavour to flee Taliban rule. Pakistani officials say the number of Afghans crossing into Pakistan has tripled in recent weeks. Finding sanctuary may have been hard six years ago, but this time around it will be nearly impossible. This time, Europe and Turkey are ready.

Prepare for more Alan Kurdis.

Published: August 30th 2021, 4:00 AM
David Lepeska

David Lepeska

David Lepeska, a veteran journalist who has reported widely across the region and contributed to top outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, is the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National