Turkey’s role in the EU’s migration crisis

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

A looming catastrophe

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.

Turkey’s double standards on migration

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 benefitsAnd 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 Van province

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.

Turkey and the EU

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.

The EU’s policy on migration

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.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Stella Gerani
Stella Gerani
Adjunct Lecturer in International Relations, Department of International and European Studies, University of Macedonia

Stella teaches War Theory for the University of Macedonia's MA in Strategic Studies.

She also teaches on the MSc in Energy Law, Business, Regulation and Policy at International Hellenic University.

Both universities are located in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Stella graduated in Classics from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

In 2016 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel granted her a research scholarship.

Stella's research focuses on international relations theory, war theory, and Middle East politics, with a specific interest in Turkey, Iran, Greece, Cyprus and Israel.

Currently, she is working on the use of drones in warfare and hybrid warfare of state and non-state actors in the Middle East.

Read more articles by this author

Share Article

Republish Article

We believe in the free flow of information Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License


4 comments on “Turkey’s role in the EU’s migration crisis”

  1. This article clearly shows the European point of view about Turkey’s migration policy. This point of view is hypocrite not Turkish policy. Europeans prefer that all migrants of the world remain in Turkey and not across the border. Easy to say double standard, Turkish hypocrisy, etc. Xenophobic Europeans cannot understand the actual situation in Turkey in which the tension between Turks and all these migrants rises every day. Stella must underline how many migrants died because of the sinked boats by the Greek coastguards. However European leaders continue to keep their awful “human rights” speeches. Seemingly only Europeans can have access to these rights but not the rest of the world. This is the hypocrisy. But none of researchers talk about it.

  2. What is the aim of the article? Where are the originality and coherency? The article in ECPR should be more qualified and objective. This article reflects the author's shallow perspective and her unfounded claims.
    The first claim, Turkey uses high technology for patrolling and surveillance in Eastern borders. Because of this reason, Turkey has more than one million Afghani and Iranian irregular immigrants in Turkey, has not it? Turkey border officers ignore Afghani and Iranian irregular migrant flows in Van and other provinces. Many military officers in the Eastern region admitted that they have an order from superiors on irregular migrants, and border officers ignore their breach of the border. Turkish migrant experts know this reality. If you google these claims in Turkish, you can reach these records.
    The second claim, "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." Do Turkish forces cooperate with smugglers and human traffickers in these regions? Have you any evidence of this? I have never read or seen this kind of document or evidence. Turkey use proxy forces in Libya. This intervention does not relate to migration flows. I think the author does not have enough geographical information on Niger and Sahel. It is a nonsense claim.
    And the last thing the author approaches that the EU can defend and patrol external borders; it is a normal security procedure under FRONTEX, but Turkey should not defend and patrol its external eastern borders; it is a humanitarian crisis. Is it your double standard of academic personality?

  3. As a social scientist, I have been following the ECPR for more than 15 years, attending both their conferences and discussion groups. However, this article shared by the ECPR has shown me that it is not a space for political science discussions with any scientific background, but rather a platform for political lobbying without any scientific integrity. The so-called "scientific" articles shared here have turned into a blog used for conducting political propaganda targeted towards Turkey, and they are far from the realm of political science. I invite you to adhere to scientific ethics.

    Even the subject of the email you sent, "Turkish hypocrisy on migration," is written as the title of the article, even though it is not the actual title. This is a typical method of subliminal thought manipulation. I believe that this line of conduct attempts to engage in hostile political propaganda under the guise of "political science." And, in my opinion, this is indeed the real hypocrisy.

    As a social scientist, I would like to emphasize that this approach is not in line with scientific ethics. I recommend that these types of articles, which lack scientific basis, methodology, and theoretical framework, should be shared in their own political and biased groups rather than in "political science" forums.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Loop

Cutting-edge analysis showcasing the work of the political science discipline at its best.
Read more
Advancing Political Science
© 2024 European Consortium for Political Research. The ECPR is a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) number 1167403 ECPR, Harbour House, 6-8 Hythe Quay, Colchester, CO2 8JF, United Kingdom.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram