Is Solidifying Borders the Answer to the Migrant Crisis in Europe?

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by Robyn Burleson

The European Union is struggling to mitigate Europe’s refugee crisis as migrants flee civil wars and poverty in Syria, Iraq, and other nations caught up in domestic upheavals. Approximately 60 million people have been displaced because of conflicts around the world, the largest number of displaced people since World War 2. More than one million migrants traveled to Europe in 2015 alone, and Syria is the largest source of those refugees. The numbers of refugees continue to climb as civil wars escalate, and the majority of the migrants are arriving in Greece, Italy, and Turkey.

In response, Europe has explored various policies to solidify and reinforce its borders to prevent migrants from reaching Europe, rather than placing a priority on accepting refugees and helping migrants integrate within EU member countries. On March 18, 2016, for example, the EU and Turkey reached an agreement calling for new migrants arriving illegally in Greece from Turkey to be returned to Turkey if their application for asylum is rejected, or if they do not apply for asylum at all. The deal seeks to encourage a legal path to resettlement in Europe while dissuading migrants from taking the dangerous route across the Aegean Sea. Through the deal, Turkey will receive $6.6 billion from the EU to assist with providing support and aid for refugees. If Turkey meets certain requirements, its citizens will be given visa-free travel throughout the Schengen area, and the country will be put on a fast-track set of negotiations to join the EU. The EU will also resettle one Syrian refugee for each Syrian that is returned to Turkey from Greece.

Since the EU-Turkey agreement’s enactment, the flow of migrants from Turkey to Greece has dropped dramatically. During March 2016, for instance, 26,460 migrants arrived in Greece, almost half of the number of migrants that had arrived in the month before. The number of migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece has been reduced to an average of 60 people per day.

Yet the agreement faces many challenges. First, there are many different routes into Europe, so migrants may decide to take alternative, equally dangerous routes that avoid Greece entirely. This would simply shift the crisis to a different sea path and border. This could be contributing to the increase in the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya. The number arriving in Italy through the Mediterranean has risen, and a record number of 181,000 migrants arrived in Italy by way of the Mediterranean in 2016, compared to 154,000 in 2015, with 90% of those migrants leaving from Libya.

Additionally, Greece faces financial challenges, hindering its ability to implement the agreement and process asylum applications on a timely basis. Due to limited funding and administrative capabilities, Greece admitted that it would not be able to enforce the agreement immediately. The EU sent 2,300 security experts, migration experts, and translators to assist with the deal’s implementation. However, the Greek asylum process remains slow and overburdened. More than 15,000 migrants are stuck in Greece. Some aspects of Greece’s asylum procedures were amended last June in order to expedite asylum proceedings and achieve the deal’s objectives more efficiently. Nonetheless, refugee camps in Greece are overflowing, and there have been few returns of refugees to Turkey.

Humanitarian groups are concerned about the conditions in Greek refugee camp, claiming that the deal does not comply with international agreements on the treatment of refugees. On the island of Samos, for example, a refugee camp built to hold 850 is currently home to more than 1,800 migrants. The urgency to implement the agreement has left thousands stranded in Greek camps, living in squalid conditions without access

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to heat or healthcare. Overcrowded camps in Greece were flooded after this year’s severe winter storms. The harsh winter has made living situations in the camp difficult, and dozens of migrants have died due to freezing temperatures.

EU leaders have reassured that the EU-Turkey deal has been successful, yet its future appears uncertain given that Greece lacks adequate funding for efficient asylum proceedings while its bottleneck of refugees continues to grow. In addition, the Turkish president has accused the EU of evading promises to offer visa-free travel and enter into negotiations with Turkey to join the EU, and he has threatened to withdraw from the agreement. Meanwhile, if far-right anti-immigration parties continue to gain power and momentum, more European countries might close off their borders and refuse to cooperate with or provide aid to other nations.

Nevertheless, the EU remains committed to its deal with Turkey and has proposed the replication of a similar type of control policy in Northern Africa. Earlier this month, the EU enacted a deal with Libya that mirrors the Turkey deal by seeking to reinforce Libya’s border and prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean into Italy. In the Libya agreement, EU leaders noted, “A key element of a sustainable migration policy is to ensure effective control of our external border and stem illegal flows into the EU.”

While the EU-Turkey deal has indeed reduced the flow of migrants between Greece and Turkey, it does not solve the underlying causes of the migrant crisis. Refugees continue to flee wars and poverty. Closing off one passage into Europe may simply cause migrants to use other dangerous routes, like the sea-lane between Libya and Italy. Furthermore, Greece and Turkey do not have the financial resources to continue to support refugees without additional aid from the EU. If Greece and Turkey do not have the infrastructure or administrative capacity to enforce the deal, the agreement may fall apart. The deal has provided a short-term fix, but to more fully and sustainably relieve the migrant crisis, the EU and the United Nations should explore greater cooperation strategies and emboldened approaches to providing support and resettling refugees throughout Europe and North America.