Europe’s Refugee Crisis to Worsen with Spring Weather

March 3, 2016 3:15 PM

With spring approaching, and with it clearer skies in the Aegean Sea, rising numbers of refugees will be crossing into Greece and elsewhere in Europe in coming months. A series of EU summits planned in March must deal urgently with the continent’s migration emergency, and there are no good options. Two distinct plans have emerged, however.

Plan A: The Turkey Choice: Spearheaded by German chancellor Angela Merkel, this plan calls for Turkey to crack down on people transiting to Europe from its shores while accepting from Europe migrants with baseless asylum and other claims. In return for serving as Europe’s bouncer, Ankara would receive €3 billion, while getting Europe to accept maybe hundreds of thousands of refugees from Turkey as part of a standardized inward migration process. Eventually, Turks would be granted visa-free travel to the European Union and get a promise from Europe to close their eyes to the methods and conduct of the Turkish government in its armed struggle with both domestic Kurdish separatists and their brethren in Syria.

Plan B: The Orban Option: Pushed initially and most forcefully by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, this plan would fortify Europe’s external borders with barbed wire and troops somewhere in the Balkans, as different nations reinstate their national borders to block migrant inflows from Syria (and the rest of the world) via Turkey. Balkan countries would seek to be inside such a new external European border, making it likely that it would be implemented at Greece’s northern border with Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania.

A first summit is planned for March 7 between the European Union and Turkey. An earlier meeting between the two sides took place November 29, producing the current EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan. But that plan is not working, as recent decisions by Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia have made clear by partially closing off the migrant route northward from Greece to many non-Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

The reality on the ground is increasingly pushing Europe toward the Orban option, and this should come as no surprise. The November 29 meeting was attended only by Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, rather than the much more powerful President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Unless Erdogan invests his personal credibility and political capital in an agreement with the European Union, it will have a limited chance of success. Another solo appearance from Prime Minister Davutoğlu on March 7, therefore, could be an early indication of the meeting’s futility.

Moreover, Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies, including a violent crackdown on Kurdish separatists in Turkey and shelling of Kurdish-dominated areas of Northern Syria, make him a less than credible partner. Not that Europe’s record on migration policy has been anything to brag about. Expecting Turkey to sign up to a deal knowing that each European government could try to block financial payments for its own political reasons at any time seems naïve. In the same vein, Ankara will have a hard time believing European assurances that EU members will accept tens of thousands of refugees directly from Turkey when these same countries aren’t even willing to accept more than a few hundred of the 160,000 they previously agreed to resettle among themselves.

Practical impediments loom even larger than political ones. Only about 270,000 of the 2.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey are currently housed in refugee camps. The rest live throughout Turkey’s cities and countryside, where they have access to schools, health care, and, in certain instances, the Turkish labor market. This means controlling their physical movements, or even preventing them from trying to get to Greece, would be fraught with difficulties, even if the Turkish authorities decided to try.

Migration is also big business. A recent Europol report found over 90 percent of migrants traveling to Europe in 2015 relied on smuggling rings, generating an estimated €3 billion to €6 billion in illicit revenue. Given the large share of migrants arriving in Europe through Turkey, it is clear a sizable chunk of these illegal funds accrues to Turkey-based criminal organizations. This not only boosts parts of the Turkish economy but also enables payment of sizable bribes to officials. Both issues further complicate the prospect for an expeditious and effective Turkish crackdown on the number of migrants arriving in Greece.

All told, Plan A is simply unrealistic. Its continued pursuit by Merkel will at best stall its inevitable collapse in a few weeks. Indeed, Europe’s migration crisis highlights the limits of the chancellor’s powers both domestically and at the European level.

Plan B is equally flawed. It would be a political travesty to physically isolate Greece from the rest of Europe. The small, crisis-ravaged country cannot realistically patrol its external border on the Aegean Sea by itself—and a recent agreement to also include NATO in the operation is unlikely to help much, given the small size of many smuggling boats. Rising numbers of stranded migrants would pressure the country’s already precarious economy and fractured political system. A humanitarian crisis would quickly ensue, driving migrants to seek new and more desperate alternative routes to the rest of Europe.

Ultimately, European leaders will have to come up with an alternative plan C to deal with the continent’s migration crisis. A comprehensive alternative plan will have to include common European external border controls, new pan-European financing vehicles, and harmonized residency and asylum rules. Any plan at this point—just before the warmer spring season—must start with proper control of Europe’s external borders. But if Europe cannot rely on Turkey, must keep its internal borders open, and cannot and must not cut Greece off, what second-best policy options are left?

A third, if suboptimal, option would be to take a page out of Australia’s controversial migration playbook and transfer all incoming illegal migrants to island-based camps for processing in order to minimize the risk of illegal migrants slipping into the rest of Europe. This would be achieved by guarding the sea ways around the islands in question. Logistically, Greek islands would be used for the purpose, because of their geographic proximity to the point of illegal entry. Such facilities would of course cost sizable sums to establish and manage in a humanitarian way, and all funding would have to come from all EU and Schengen area members (which also includes Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway), rather than just Greece. Indeed, this approach would even justify a Greek request for sizable debt relief in return for hosting such refugee camps.

Such a drastic solution can only be contemplated in the face of even more dire alternatives—for instance, seeing tens of thousands of migrants stranded around Europe. While Greek island camps would likely be spartan, they would be better than the makeshift tent cities that have sprung up in various railway stations and border crossings across the continent. In the end, renting out some islands to the rest of Europe to host refugees might be the least bad option for both Greece and Europe to deal with the current migration issue.