Five years since the announcement of the 'EU-Turkey deal', this arrangement continues to cause immeasurable suffering on the Greek islands. But what is it? And why is it such a problem? Find out here.

What is the EU-Turkey deal?

The ‘EU-Turkey deal’ is the term often used to describe the ‘statement of cooperation’ between EU states and the Turkish Government, which was signed in March 2016.

It agreed on three key points:

In exchange, Turkey would receive €6 billion to improve the humanitarian situation faced by refugees in the country, and Turkish nationals would be granted visa-free travel to Europe. 

The message was clear: those attempting to reach Greece irregularly would be swiftly returned, while those who waited patiently in Turkey would have the chance to enter in their place.

Why was the EU-Turkey deal introduced?

The deal was one element of the EU’s response to a sharp rise in the number of people arriving on Europe’s shores in search of safety and protection in 2015. In that year, almost 1 million refugees arrived in the European Union, while more than 3,500 tragically lost their lives making the treacherous journey. More than 75% of those arriving in Europe had fled conflict and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The increase in new arrivals dominated headlines, sparked heated public debate, and began to polarise public opinion. While there was a huge outpouring of support and solidarity from some countries and communities, a number of populist political parties and movements across Europe also employed strong anti-migrant messages and imagery to further their own agendas.

By early 2016, EU member states began closing their borders in efforts to prevent people reaching their territory irregularly. Yet as the number of new arrivals in frontline EU states such as Greece increased, the EU began to put greater pressure on Turkey to curb departures from its own coastline.

On March 18th 2016, the EU-Turkey statement was announced, and it was implemented two days later. It was supposed to be a ‘temporary measure’ intended to stop irregular migration to Europe.

People crammed into a small boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea
Photo: PaulBlow/IRC


Did the agreement have its intended result?

Yes and no. While the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement may have  contributed to the significant reduction in the the number of people risking the dangerous journey to Greece, the price for those that do make it to the EU has been unbearable, and the total sent back to Turkey under the deal has been negligible. 

While about 15,000 people remain trapped on the islands today, just 2,140 people have been returned from Greece to Turkey under the deal over the past five years. This is mainly due to a long and complex asylum procedure that includes ‘admissibility’ criteria, and also the reality that  - in many cases - the Greek courts have acknowledged that Turkey is not a safe country to send people back to.

Five years since the deal was implemented, no mass returns have been made from Greece to Turkey. Approximately 27,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled from Turkey to EU Member States under the agreement.

Saide washes her family’s clothes in the new Mavrovouni reception centre in Lesvos in October 2020.
Photo: LGouliamaki/IRC


How has this affected refugees and asylum seekers on the Greek islands?

The containment policies put in place as a consequence of the EU-Turkey agreement have come at an immeasurable cost to people seeking safety and protection, trapping thousands of asylum seekers in limbo on the Greek islands. 

Over the past five years, there has been severe overcrowding on the islands, stretching all services and facilities far beyond capacity. There is limited access to the most basic needs for survival and dignity, including shelter, sanitation and medical care.

At its peak in December 2019, the notorious Moria camp on the island of Lesvos housed 18,000 people in a space designed for just 3,000.

These conditions have sparked a mental health crisis, whereby three quarters of people the IRC has assisted on the islands since 2018 have reported experiencing symptoms of mental health conditions. On Lesvos, four in five (79%) of the 530 people treated by our psychologists since March 2018 reported symptoms of depression, while almost half (48%) had considered suicide since leaving their homes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these problems further still as severe lockdown measures have crammed people into an even smaller space, meaning safety precautions such as regular hand washing and social distancing have been near impossible.

Learn more in our report ‘The Cruelty of Containment’.

Watch the video below to hear the words of Audrey, Baimba and Hassan who have experienced mental health symptoms during their time trapped on the Greek islands.


How can this be resolved?

The EU and its member states can and must urgently put an end to the immense suffering experienced on the Greek islands. Here’s how:

The EU’s immediate priority should be to accelerate the safe transfer of people from Greek islands. This includes increasing transfers to more appropriate accommodation on the mainland and scaling up the relocation of people to other EU member states. 

The ongoing political deadlock around the EU’s future migration policy cannot be an excuse for EU leaders to do nothing. It’s critical that more EU governments step up immediately and offer to welcome those in need.

The most vulnerable — including unaccompanied children, families with children, people identifying as LGBTQI, with health conditions, GBV survivors, and victims of torture — must be prioritised until a more permanent, fair and workable relocation mechanism is in place.

Anyone who remains trapped on the Greek islands must be provided with safe and dignified accommodation, with emergency and alternative arrangements in place for vulnerable groups. Everyone must have access to essential services such as water and sanitation so they can properly protect themselves from COVID-19, while quality health care - including mental health care - must be guaranteed for all.

Read our joint open letter calling for all asylum seekers on the Greek islands to be transferred to appropriate accommodation, signed by NGOs including Amnesty, Oxfam and Human Rights Watch.

The EU must forge a response to forced migration that is rooted in solidarity and responsibility-sharing to ease the pressure on frontline member states, and ensure a fair, sustainable and humane relocation system which works for new arrivals and host communities alike.

The EU must no longer shift responsibility for migration to countries on its external borders such as Turkey and Libya. These policies of externalisation are unsustainable, dangerous and threaten to undermine the EU’s fundamental values of respect for human rights and dignity. 

The EU must urgently expand existing and create more safe, legal routes to protection in Europe so people are not forced to risk their lives on these dangerous journeys in the first place.

The new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum is a chance to fix these flawed policies. However, current proposals look set to reinforce some of the most damaging elements of the EU-Turkey Statement including containment, the degradation of procedural safeguards, and the externalisation of EU migration policy. We look forward to working with the institutions and member states to ensure these do not become a blueprint for the EU’s future approach to forced migration. 

Learn more about the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum.


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