The Central Mediterranean is the main migratory route to the EU, with most irregular migrants coming from Syria, Afghanistan and Turkey. Stella Gerani examines the critical role played by Turkey in this migration crisis. She highlights how domestic and foreign policy are driving Turkey's approach – and its double standards
FRONTEX reports that the Central Mediterranean remained the main migratory route into the EU during the first five months of 2023. This means that the burden of protecting the EU's external borders falls mostly on the shoulders of eastern and southern Mediterranean states.
Recently, a humanitarian disaster occurred in the international waters between Greece and Italy. This tragedy highlights the severity of the ongoing situations forcing migrants to flee their native countries. The majority of people taking the Greece-Italy route are Libyan, Syrian, Afghan, and Turkish.
Turkey plays a key role in migration towards the EU, but the deal struck in 2016 to control and regularise this is effectively dead
Turkey also plays a key role in migration from these areas into the EU. In 2016, a deal was struck in an attempt to regularise migration through Turkey. But it is effectively dead. Turkey is known to weaponise migration to influence or coerce other actors, especially the EU. This means that domestic and foreign drivers of Turkish politics contribute to the migration crisis.
The key question is this. Do Turkish strikes in Idlib, the country’s involvement in Libya, and Erdoğan’s revisionist agenda suggest that the EU's current migration crisis is on the verge of catastrophe?
It is clear that the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) government has been exploiting migration flows, especially since the 2021 Idlib strikes. But Turkey's migration policies on its eastern and western borders differ. Unravelling this reveals the country’s double standards on migration, and its role in the EU migration crisis.
Right now, there are approximately 3.6 million registered migrants on Turkish soil. Turkey’s proximity to conflict zones such as those in Syria, Iraq, and Iran means that country’s role in migration will remain critical.
Turkey's handling of migration towards the West shows the AKP consistently implementing its agenda. Turkey seeks to exploit the EU for financial benefits. And the fulfillment of visa liberalisation and the acceleration of Turkey’s accession process to the EU form another part of the agenda.
The weaponisation of migration flows also entails the employment of hybrid warfare. Turkey is using its huge refugee population as a leverage against Europe to garner support for its military operation to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces – backed by Russia and Iran – from gaining more territory inside Idlib. In that regard, it promotes its geopolitical ambitions. Military operations to tackle the 'problem' in east Anatolia and Syria, namely the Kurds, are continued in Turkish incursions in Syria, in northern Iraq and Libya.
But what receives less attention is Turkey’s migration crisis along its Eastern border.
The province of Van, in Turkey's Eastern Anatolian region, shares a border with Iran. Migrants attempting to enter Turkey from the Iranian side hail mostly from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Iraq. But rather than treating this as a humanitarian crisis of people fleeing dangerous zones, Turkey considers it a security issue, intertwined with terrorism, cross-border crimes, and smuggling.
On this border with Iraq and Iran, Turkey uses sophisticated technology such as drones, radars, surveillance and reconnaissance to tackle migration. Tellingly, it does not use such methods to address the flow of human beings from its Western border. Nor does Turkey deal this way with migrants from Syria, who embark on a dangerous journey towards the haven of Europe.
Events in Syria highlight Turkey’s role in the EU migration crisis. When the AKP came to office in 2002, Turkey’s policies encouraged migration from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, as well as from EU countries. The policies courted university students in particular, to attract qualified, skilled migrants, and bolster the country's regional standing.
On the border with Iraq and Iran, Turkey uses sophisticated technology to tackle migration as a security issue – in contrast with its approach elsewhere
In 2011 came the Arab Spring. The AKP goverment saw this as an opportunity to become leader of the Arab world. Not only that, but Turkey experienced socio-economic problems, and began to perceive the EU as a ‘Christian club’. These factors eroded and changed AKP policy on migration.
The turning point came in Syria, in February 2020. At least 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in air strikes during an offensive by the Syrian government and Russian forces aiming to regain the rebel stronghold Idlib. This prompted Turkey to launch a drone campaign against Hezbollah militias, which work with the Syrian government and are backed by the Axis of Resistance, including Iran.
What followed Turkish strikes in Idlib was effectively the weaponisation of migration. In reaction to public dissatisfaction on the domestic front, Turkey opened its borders to migrants from Syria heading towards Europe. Doing so offered leverage against Europe to attract support for the Turkish military operation inside Idlib.
Turkey’s increasingly assertive foreign policy clashes with the EU priorities under the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The statement resulting from the EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan of 2015 aimed to put an end to irregular migration from Turkey to the EU, prevent the loss of life, and shut down migrant smuggling networks.
Cooperation between Turkey and the EU on migration has suffered as a result of increasingly assertive Turkish foreign policy
But a number of factors have compromised EU-Turkey cooperation. Turkish military support in Libya through deployment of foreign fighters on the ground is one of these. Turkey's persistent criticism of and lack of cooperation with the EU’s Operation IRINI is another. And then there is Turkey’s backing of militias in Northern Syria and its resettlement of Syrian refugees in formerly Kurdish areas.
Migrants enter the EU illegally with the help of smugglers from the Sahel, Niger and Libya. Turkish presence and military interference in these areas is a major problem for the EU’s migration strategy.
As is clear from its double standards, the Turkish government draws an intentional connection between the use of technology on migration and its foreign policy agenda. Erdoğan's government makes extensive use of drones to monitor Turkey's borders with Iraq and Iran, in stark contrast with its approach to migrants heading towards Europe.
To avoid humanitarian crises, the EU must decide whether it will develop a coherent and comprehensive policy on migration. The alternative is simply to continue to appease smugglers, as Turkey also does.