The European Commission still awaits more from Ankara to control the illegal entrance of refugees to Greece. At the same time, Brussels put pressure on Athens to improve the reception capacities for sending back asylum seekers to Greece.

The European Commission, on February 10, released a progress report regarding the situation of refugees in Turkey.

Turkey has made some efforts “to stem irregular migratory flows, such as the opening of the labour market for Syrian refugees,” the vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, said.

However, Brussels is still expecting much more from Ankara “in preventing irregular departures of migrants and refugees from its territory to the EU,” especially from Greece, said the EU executive.

EU Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis visiting the reception camp of Moria in Lesbos in November 2015 /

Commissioner Andriukaitis visiting the reception camp in Lesbos in 2015

Under the EU-Turkey migration action plan, agreed last October and activated in November, Turkey is supposed to help stem the flow of refugees entering Europe in exchange for financial support by the EU worth 3 billion euros, a reopening of the accession negotiations and the lifting of visa requirements for Turkish business people travelling to Europe.

At the same time, Turkey is facing a double requests from Europe.

While the Turkish government so far has been expected to cut the number of refugees illegally entering Greece, which means closing its Western border, the Turkish authorities at the same time have been asked to open the country’s border with Syria for thousands of refugees fleeing the war.

Turkey has so far taken on 2.7 million refugees and the EU countries will need to take in more of them at the end anyway, argued Fabian Zuleeg, director at the European Policy Centre (EPC), a think-tank in Brussels. However, the Syrian border is more crucial at the moment.

“On the Syrian border at the moment there is an emergency,” Zuleeg said. “It is a humanitarian catastrophe and certainly we would not want to be in a situation where Europe, whether that is Turkey or the European Union, stands by watch while civilian get massacred, so I think we need to do something about that situation soon and rather than later,” Zuleeg said.

Returns of asylum seekers to Greece

Since the beginning of the year, more than 76,000 migrants have arrived in Greece and Italy and more than 400 refugees died on Mediterranean routes, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

The European Commission has given Athens a month to make improvements for the living conditions of refugees before further checks in March.

This should help member states to send back asylum seekers to Greece, which is currently impossible, since the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice ruled in 2010 and 2011 that returning refugees to Greece is not legal because of the poor reception capacities and the lack of access to proper asylum procedures.

President Tusk visiting the Nizip refugee camp in Turkey, near the Syrian border, on September 10, 2015 /

President Tusk visiting the Nizip refugee camp in Turkey in 2015

The EU is also attempting to clear a legal path for Greece to send back refugees, this time to Turkey, by labelling Turkey as “safe,” which would allow the deportation of asylum seekers from there.

Ankara reacted negatively to this initiative, explaining that this move could put at stake the EU-Turkey action plan on migration.

But Eugenio Ambrosi, director of the Brussels office of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), argued that Turkey and Greece are not the only countries to be blamed.

“I don’t think the blame has to be put on them. Yes, it is correct to ask them to do more, but it is also correct that we help them more in order to improve the way they manage the current situation,” Ambrosi said.

“And as long as there is no effective way of sharing the burden of the number arriving in any single country, we will continue to see these situations replicating themselves.”

Greek government ready to be isolated

After the EU Commission supported the idea of closing the border between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to stop illegal refugee flows, which would isolate Athens, the Greek Vice-President Ioannis Dragasakis explained to the Greek Euranet Plus member Skaï Radio that the country should be prepared for that. (audio in Greek)

“Society should be ready for every possibility, even the closure of our borders,” Deagasakis said.

“This would not mean getting out of the Schengen area, it would be an extreme scenario based on which, for a few months, we will have to deal with 50,000 to 60,000 migrants.”

Also the deputy minister in charge of migration, Ioannis Mouzalas, warned the Greek citizens that closing the border with Macedonia could become reality in a short-term scenario (audio in Greek)

“To the question if there is fear that the borders could close, I would answer you that we must be ready for this,” Mouzalas said, “but I would underline that it is a manageable difficulty we might face.”

The EU’s failure to manage the migrant crisis, especially the relocation scheme, was highlighted by the EU Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos. He admitted that the relocation of 160,000 refugees “did not work” as much as was expected and warned the EU member states.

“So far, only 497 migrants were relocated, that is why I have addressed today a letter to each interior minister with a clear and strong message to remind them that they are bound by the relocation decisions, which have to be implemented immediately in light of the emergency of the situation,” Avramopoulos said.

According to Eugenio Ambrosi, not only Europe, but also the international community, including the United States and Canada, should be involved in the burden sharing of helping Syrian asylum seekers since the migration crisis is becoming a global issue – and not only a European one.

The 28 EU leaders will discuss the EU’s response to the refugee crisis at the European summit on February 18-19, but no major decisions are foreseen.

  • Author: Laeticia Markakis, Euranet Plus News Agency
  • Further image credits: (middle 1) EU Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis visiting the reception camp of Moria in Lesbos in November 2015 / | (middle 2) President Tusk visiting the Nizip refugee camp in Turkey, near the Syrian border, on September 10, 2015 /