Tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades. While the situation on Lesbos and other Greek islands has already resembled what hell must look like, thousands of more migrants are now stuck in a no-man’s-land at the Greek border after Turkey opened its side of the border. One of the main reasons why Turkey has leverage over the EU is the latter’s failure to support Greece and set up a functioning migration system. Only if the rule of law and human rights are upheld, the EU can strengthen its position.
The international asylum system is not tailored for crises such as the recent arrival of migrants in Greece. It seems outright absurd: Migrants are prevented by all means from arriving at the countries they wish to enter, but once they overcome all obstacles, they suddenly become persons with rights. A system with generous quotas to resettle people directly from migrant camps to Europe would certainly be more just and humane. But as long as this remains utopian, the right of asylum is an important part of the European rule of law. It is one of the few humane elements that remain in a system that otherwise fails to provide legal pathways for the most vulnerable to find safety.
Yet, the EU is currently losing its last bits of humanity at the Greek-Turkish border as the right of asylum is suspended. The Greek authorities respond to the new influx of migrants with unprecedented brutality. The first migrant was recently shot at the border and hundreds more wounded. Greece denies using live ammunition but struggles to explain how this incident happened. The EU is watching one of its member states openly breaking not only international but also European law. Reports reveal that Greek authorities stripped migrants and sent them back to Turkey in their underwear. Another video shows the Greek coast guard firing shots in the direction of a migrants’ boat.
How Greece deals with this new migration crisis clearly deserves to be fiercely criticized. Yet, the real “crisis” is Europe’s indifference and inaction. Had it used the last five years following the 2015 crisis to build a functioning European asylum system and effectively supported the Greek state to prepare for the next influx of persons, its position vis-à-vis Turkey would be significantly stronger. The reason why Turkey can easily spread chaos at the Greek border and make the EU’s rule of law collapse is the EU’s weak migration regime. The EU and its member states have failed to support southern countries at the periphery so that they can efficiently cope with the arrival of thousands of migrants without violating fundamental human rights and the rule of law. This makes them look weak and invites the Turkish president Erdogan to instrumentalize migrants for a geopolitical game of chess against Europe. Erdogan wants to show strength during a difficult domestic situation of war, economic recession and overburdened migration authorities. Secondly, he needs leverage to get what he wants from the EU: more financial support, visa-free traveling for Turkish citizens and better access to the EU market.
What is now needed is a smart diplomacy with Turkey to preserve the imperfect but necessary cooperation with Turkey, possibly through a new agreement that is better implemented than the previous one. Furthermore, Greece finally needs to be assisted more efficiently by its European partners. The European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson traveled to Greece this week to defend the right of asylum. This sends an important signal, but she will also need to convince member states to do more.
The EU’s position in negotiations with Turkey would be significantly strengthened if Greece managed to keep the asylum system functioning. Asylum requests could be processed in the so-called hotspots if the EU and its member states provided more personnel and significantly more resources. President Erdogan only has leverage over the EU as long as member states are divided on migration. Their failure to resettle migrants from Turkey to the EU is one of the reasons why the EU-Turkey agreement did not work. Moreover, the EU is to blame for its weak position if migration-hostile member states such as Hungary and Poland cannot be persuaded to contribute at least by materially and financially assisting Greece.
Deterrence obviously does not prevent people from migrating and risking everything. Upholding the right of asylum does not mean opening borders but upholding dignity and humanity. While EU member states fear the creation of a “pull effect” if they open their arms and resettle migrants to their countries, they should at least do something about the atrocious conditions in Moria and other camps. The fact that five countries announced they would resettle up to 1500 unaccompanied and sick migrant children is a first positive gesture but nothing more.
The rule of law is one of the most fundamental principles of the European Union and “Western civilization” that Europeans are so proud of. Especially in a time of mounting pressure from illiberal and undemocratic political forces from the European extreme-right and abroad, we need to hold up human rights and the rule of law. Not by paying lip service but by doing something about the situation on Lesbos, Chios, Samos. Putting pressure on our governments to take their responsibility seriously would be a first step. Not only to appeal to our moral consciousness but also to take away Turkey’s leverage over the EU.
Frederic Göldner is a second-year master student at the Institute for European Studies and co-editor-in-chief of Eyes on Europe