Afghan refugee tensions set to cool EU-Turkey relations

Ankara insists it cannot absorb a fresh surge of migrants fleeing the Taliban

This group of migrants was detained by Turkish security forces amid concerns over a refugee crisis from Afghanistan. AP
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Tension over Afghan refugees is likely to cool relations between the EU and Turkey, a European security expert said, after Ankara signalled it could not absorb a surge of migrants.

Turkey is exposed to the fallout from Afghanistan because of its border with Iran, one of the neighbouring countries where many Afghans have fled.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Tuesday that it was up to the EU to ensure that migrants are looked after in the region.

Mr Erdogan “underlined that Turkey does not have the capacity to handle a new migration burden,” his office said.

He said that “no-one wants to relive an experience similar to the Syrian refugee wave of 2015,” when hundreds of thousands crossed EU borders.

Luigi Scazzieri, a European security expert at the Centre for European Reform, said that any co-operation between Brussels and Ankara would be tense.

He said Turkey may try to push migrants towards the EU to satisfy domestic calls for a tough line on refugees.

Turkey hosts the world’s largest refugee population, including 3.7 million Syrians. Anti-migrant sentiment has been running high as the country grapples with economic woes, including high unemployment.

“The government can ill afford an influx of Afghans and new criticism at a time when it is coming under attack for its handling of the economy and its response to wildfires this summer,” Mr Scazzieri said.

“European leaders can expect Ankara to dial up the rhetoric and to occasionally push migrants towards the EU, both to drum up domestic political support and to remind the EU of its leverage.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under pressure to prevent a new surge of migrants in Turkey. Reuters

Migration deal

The 2015 crisis led to a deal between Ankara and the EU to stem the flow of migrants through Turkey. Europe wants to prevent a repeat of the crisis by helping Afghanistan's neighbours to look after refugees.

Europe’s financial support for migrants in Turkey has continued amid a string of other disputes about human rights and the Eastern Mediterranean.

But Mr Scazzieri said the need to work together on migration from Afghanistan was unlikely to lead to a broader improvement in relations.

“There will inevitably be tensions over migration itself, particularly if the number of Afghans arriving is high,” he said.

Disputes on other issues “will continue to cause friction and to pose a formidable obstacle to a broader improvement in relations”.

One issue is Turkey’s long-stalled application to join the EU. Mr Erdogan said in April that he remained committed to this.

He told Mr Steinmeier on Monday that the EU should restart the talks to uphold its side of the migration deal, which called for Turkey's accession process to be re-energised.

Further demands from Mr Erdogan include updating a customs union with Ankara and granting visa-free travel to Turkish citizens.

Updated: September 15, 2021, 12:24 PM