Is Turkey a safe third country? And why did we get there in the first place?

Is Turkey a safe third country? And why did we get there in the first place?

February 2016

Anna Triandafyllidou

European University Institute


In one of their headlines yesterday (11 Feb 2016) the New York Times announced: NATO Will Send Ships to Aegean Sea to Deter Human Trafficking. While trafficking is certainly a concern in the region (as a just released ICMPD study documents) and probably along the Balkan trail to northern Europe, the newly announced policy is aimed to combat the much wider phenomenon of migrant smuggling across the Aegean sea.

Indeed, in the effort to manage or better to limit the current refugee flows, and after having tried, without much success, to get more EU countries to share the new arrivals (the failed relocation quotas), the EU is now turning to solutions in the region. Thus after the visit of Chancellor Angela Merkel in Turkey on 9 February and while tens of thousands of Syrian refugees were gathering at the now closed Turkish Syrian border, escaping the regime’s military offensive against the opposition’s stronghold in the city of Aleppo, Germany has declared that for asylum seeking purposes of these populations Turkey is a ‘safe third country’. The aim of this new move has been to curb the smuggling of migrants in the Aegean sea, along the Greek Turkish sea border and also drastically limit the new flows going through Greece and the Balkan route further north. Indeed stopping the flows in Turkey appears to be a more viable and politically acceptable solution rather than ring-fencing an EU member state, Greece, seeking to trap asylum seekers there and thus indirectly seeking to discourage them from going to ‘Europe’.

The question of course arises whether Turkey is indeed a ‘safe third country given the authoritarian turn that the regime has taken in the last years and particularly in the last months including sanctioning and firing academics who speak their minds against the regime. This has been a hot question since October 2015 and the first efforts of the EU to designate safe third countries the Western Balkan states and Turkey.

The new plan proposed now mobilises NATO forces in the patrolling of the Greek Turkish sea border. Greece has accepted the joint move but given the sensitive relations among the two countries in the area, has asked that neither Greece nor Turkey is heading the operation. Indeed it will be German forces on the command with Greek ships patrolling Greek waters and Turkish ships patrolling Turkish waters and the rest of the NATO forces patrolling both sides. The idea is that these ships will intercept and return boats and dinghies smuggling asylum seekers or irregular migrants from Turkey to the Greek islands in the Aegean and promptly return them to Turkey. There, the EU will establish a direct relocation operation with the voluntary cooperation of several large EU member states willing to accept asylum seekers from the SIA (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan) countries, promising to fly several thousand people a month out of Turkey into the EU.

Again here one wonders why we need NATO when we have Frontex, but maybe the answer is that Turkey is a member of NATO but not of the EU. And in addition NATO forces means also a direct involvement of the USA – an involvement that actually President Obama appears to have offered to Italy’s President Mattarella in his most recent visit to the White House on 8 February.

Another question that arises is why should Turkey allow people leave its coasts only to take them back? It could have been easier to intercept them while on the Turkish coast and inform them and redirect them to the relocation operation? Of course people vote with their own feet and the risk that they would continue boarding dinghies to the Greek islands remains.

Perhaps the question that most acutely arises for the EU though is why did we get there in the first place? Why is it that only Germany and Sweden are accepting asylum seekers and other EU countries try to close their eyes and pretend it is not happening or hope that if they close their borders they can stay out of what is a wider geopolitical reshuffling in the region. Such short sightedness and closure within the national borders reminds one of the reactions of southern European countries to the sudden and massive post 1989 immigration flows from Eastern Europe. Italy and Greece at the time seemed to think they could stop the migrants from coming if they voted harsh migration laws. Now it seems that Italy and Greece have learnt the lesson but the Central Eastern European countries have forgotten their own experiences.


The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily express the views of the DemandAT project consortium as whole.