How are Turkey and Greece handling the EU refugee deal?

Over a year has passed since the refugee deal came into effect. But is it causing a rift between Turkey and Greece?


4,000 people were evacuated from the Moria Camp for refugees on the Greek island of Lesvos, after the entire site was set ablaze. Rumours that the Greek government planned a mass deportation may have sparked the incident. September 20, 2016.

Updated Mar 30, 2017

A sense of panic has reigned over Athens since the EU-Turkey refugee deal was launched during German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey in March 2016.

“The European Union deal has definitely created anxiety in Greece,” NATO Fellow and Risk Expert at Other Solutions Consulting, Konstantinos Efthymiou told TRT World.

The EU sponsored deal aimed to halt illegal refugee flows into Europe, facilitate EU visas for Turkish citizens and provide additional funding for Turkey to cope with the crisis. The terms of the deal are constantly wrangled over in public. But how are the parties – Turkey, the EU, and Greece, coming to terms with it?

How is Greece coping with the refugee crisis?

Turkey and Greece have long been rivals in the Mediterranean. Today, it is not a turbulent history that is at issue, but a refugee crisis that has escalated tensions between the two neighbours.

The Greek perspective on the issue is one dominated by the idea of EU negligence – and Turkish realpolitik. The 2009 debt crisis also continues to suffocate the country.

Thousands of Greek protesters supported the “No Vote” in the Greek referendum in July 2015. Many Greeks are still worried about their country’s future, as they see their leftist government unable to negotiate a ‘fair deal’ with the EU’s leadership. The refugee crisis has made things worse as the far-right continues to protest about what they feel is a waste of money and resources on immigrants. (AFP/Archive)

Greece’s camps are at a breaking point. Overcrowding, inadequate facilities and staffing problems are rife in Greece’s refugee hotspots and across Europe’s southern front.

“The international community is overwhelmed and divided. According to reports from the UNHCR, Greece took 169,000 refugees whilst Italy took in more than 159,000,”  said Gesu Antonio Baez, advisor to the Board of Global Vision Institute, a development network.  

“Greece is in serious trouble as it has surpassed its own capacity. Lesvos for example has a capacity to take 4,145 refugees and it has around 5,756 currently,” Baez continued. “Chios [a Greek island] is even worse, having a capacity and 1,427, instead it now has 3,465 people on the island.

“Greece and Italy have serious financial burdens. They are taking much more than they can handle – and will not be able to withstand such pressure for long.”

For Syrians the prospect of employment and reuniting with their families induces many to risk their lives and travel to Greek shores. But after prayers and relief, many are shocked at the conditions they find themselves in. “We reached at 2 o’clock at night in Greece. We had to walk for at least three hours, and we slept on the street. The police woke us up in a very bad way, then they put us in a line and treated us like slaves. No basic necessities were afforded to us, even helpless children weren’t being treated,” said Rifaat Zuraiq, a Syrian refugee who entered Europe through Greece and is currently in Germany. (AFP/Archive)

Why is Greece worried about the EU deal?

Greek authorities are perplexed that the EU appears to have washed its hands of refugees, having placed responsibility for the crisis on Athens' shoulders.

“A lot has happened with the migrants and with militants crossing into Europe, Greece has been held responsible for such breaches,” Efthymiou said.

As the influx of refugees from Turkey continues, there are mounting security concerns in Europe as Greece is unable to efficiently mitigate this issue.

“The Greek opposition and government have a consensus on this matter as such accusations are completely unfair. How can a country that is under economic crisis be expected to maintain such high level of security and monitoring across its southern border, particularly with such a large influx of refugees?”

That’s a question striking at the heart of the Greek position in what seems to be a divided European Union.

“A lot of Greeks find it unfair for the EU to give money to Turkey rather than giving it to us to uphold our responsibility. That is crazy.”

Greece is the biggest recipient of EU Home Affairs funding, having received $1.06 billion in the past two years, according to EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos; while Turkey, under the EU refugee deal, has been promised a 6.8 billion aid package to help accommodate millions of refugees in its borders.

“It is widely believed among Greece’s security circles that Turkey is using the refugee crisis as a ticking bomb waiting to be activated when the circumstances suit Turkey and only Turkey,” he said. “A bargaining chip, if you will, for Ankara to get its way with European Union.”

Turkey: Refugees Are Not Political Leverage

President Erdogan has been clear about his criticism of European powers not fulfilling their promises surrounding the EU-Turkey refugee deal. He has also been critical of Islamophobia and the rise of the far-right across the continent. (AFP/Archive)

Their neighbours have also undergone a transformation because of the crisis. Turkey is home to more than 3 million refugees – but sees the crisis in a different light.

“The number of refugees coming into Europe was very high, and everyday hundreds of people would arrive on Greek shores.

“But after the EU-Turkey deal, the number has decreased drastically – even though it has not been reduced completely” the humanitarian diplomacy coordinator for IHH, Izzet Sahin told TRT World.

But does Turkey believe that refugees are pawns?

“Refugees should not be a tool for political negotiations. Turkey has shown its hospitality. Unfortunately though, Europe has not done its duty to share the burden of the refugees – and they are actually directly part of this conflict. “

“A good example of Europe’s irresponsibility, part of the EU-Turkey agreement was visa free travel for Turkish citizens, a promise that has not been fulfilled,” Sahin said.

The far-right Golden Dawn party, which gained prominence after the 2009 debt crisis in Greece, often holds rallies in Athens, clashing with anti-fascist protesters. Golden Dawn has been accused of murdering immigrants and causing raucous across Greece. (AFP/Archive)

Turkey’s frustration was evident last year as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that he might nullify the Lausanne Treaty, which gave up  Ankara’s territorial claims across the Aegean Seas.

In a more recent, high profile spat with his Dutch and German counterparts, he characterised their policies as “Nazi” measures.

Security is a mounting concern, as refugees have come by the millions into Europe.

“Refugees lives are not only endangered through a perilous journey across the sea, but more recently the rise of Islamophobia and discriminatory violence in Europe is a serious threat,” Sahin said.

Can Greece and Turkey set aside their differences?

Despite the escalation of tensions, both sides have shown their willingness to cooperate and collaborate in their own diplomatic fashion.

“The humanitarian problem will only go away if the new generations do away with the historic mistrust between Greece and Turkey and try to effectively acknowledge and collaborate to create space for a fruitful neighbourly partnership.

Greece and Turkey are both members of NATO, which has agreed to deploy vessels to the Aegean to counter human trafficking. However, reports that were denied by Ankara indicated that Turkey prohibited NATO vessels from travelling to the Turkish side of the Aegean in March 2016. The situation has since escalated, with both countries' navies facing off across their sea border.(AFP/Archive)

“There is a lot of prospect between the two nations and a long history of cooperation in many fields, and we should not let this contemporary phenomenon get in between this infinite potential of partnership that we share,” Efthymiou said

Despite being disappointed at the EU, Ankara also seems to desire a pragmatic partnership with Athens.

“Greece and Turkey should unite under one issue – the humanitarian issue. We cannot stop the movement of people from one country to another, ban them, or building walls, this is not the solution” said Sahin in a message to his Greek counterparts.

However both Mediterranean countries still maintain a similar complaint – about the actions of the European Union.

Greece wants more economic aid, humanitarian experts and acknowledgment, whilst Turkey is overburdened with the biggest share of refugees since the start of the Syrian crisis, and needs the EU to fulfil promises made in 2016.

What do Syrians have to say?

Many children have been separated from their families and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have been denied access to education and healthcare as they find themselves trapped in limbo waiting for asylum applications to be processed. (AFP/Archive)

Many Syrian refugees have expressed the difficulty of their situation and the lack of help afforded to them.

“The Syrians don’t have a homeland. They hold no loyalty, and anyone who can help should help. We lost our families, our country and our livelihood. Even our Arab neighbours who we thought were our brothers have not helped much.

Asking simply for humane action, many Syrians are disappointed at the transformation of the crisis into a tool for political negotiations.

“Can you imagine what it is to be a refugee and to feel like this everyday? We thank those who have helped in Europe. We just ask for humanitarianism to be the priority rather than any political game that is being played,” Rifaat Zuraiq, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Greece earlier this year and is currently in Germany, told TRT World.

Indifference or the delay in solving the humanitarian problem may have dire consequences for Turkey and Europe more widely.

“We have to give the Syrians hope – if we don’t, we risk seven million refugees losing faith and creating real socio-political problems across Europe and Turkey that will not be manageable.” Sahin said.


Author: Achment Gonim

TRTWorld and agencies