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Turkey using refugees as a leverage
Turkey has aided all shades of Syrian rebels (except the Kurds) with arms and other kinds of support in the Syrian civil war since it began in 2011. The Turkish army has also launched incursions across the border and now controls swathes of territory in northern Syria. Ankara’s armed intervention in its southern neighbour, though, is only one aspect of its autocratic President Erdogan’s devious policies. As the Syrian conflict continues to rage, a mass of people are trying to get away from the line of fire. These refugees have moved both, within the country as well as outside of it. A large number of them have been trying to go to Europe to build better lives for themselves. To achieve this, they have to move through Turkish territory. Erdogan has been cynically using these unfortunate people as leverage in his dealings with Europe.
Recently, the Syrian conflict threatened to heat up in the north of the country again. On 27th February, a Syrian airstrike killed 34 Turkish soldiers in the region. Turkey has since retaliated by attacking Syrian forces operating against terrorists of Hay’at Tahrir al Shams, a branch of Al Qaeda. This prompted a Russian warning. Moscow is the primary backer of the Assad regime in Syria and has played a major role in propping it up. Turkey demanded that its NATO allies in Europe and America help it in its confrontation with Russia. The European states, especially France, have repeatedly criticised Erdogan over his involvement in the Syrian war. To convince the Europeans of the demerits of such a course, Erdogan opened the gates of Europe to refugees.
This isn't the first time that Europe is facing a migrant crisis. In 2015, more than a million refugees arrived in Europe, mostly through Turkey. Although initially welcomed, the arrivals soon led to political upheavals in host nations. New arrivals were portrayed as a cultural threat.
Overtly, most leaders in Europe proclaim support to humanitarian values. However, the polities in these states have found it increasingly difficult to accept new migrants. Frequent attacks by Islamic radicals have also made the populace more aware of the dangers of uncontrolled migration. The right-leaning political parties gained traction in several states due to anti-immigrant sentiments. On the other hand, leftist parties in Europe have found it difficult to go against their own decades-long policies. To overcome the political division, the European Union (EU) signed an agreement with Turkey. In return for a curb to uncontrolled migration, the EU agreed to pay 6 billion Euros to Ankara. It also agreed to discuss visa-free travel for Turks to Europe and restart Turkey’s EU accession talks.
There were also other unintended consequences. One of the primary reasons for Brexit was the disagreement that the United Kingdom had with the rest of Europe over immigration. However, Europe is not the only region which has had to face the migration crisis. The United States of America also faces a similar problem. Donald Trump won the presidency in the United States on an anti-immigration plank. Since coming to power, he has sought to build a wall on America’s southern border to prevent illegal migrants from sneaking into the country. The Trump administration has also moved to change the way legal immigrants enter the US. His curbs on H1B visas negatively affect Indians among others.
Large scale migration or attempts at the same are providing states, hosting bases for such migration, new leverage. Turkey, under Erdogan, is skillfully using this tool to pressurise the European states. After allowing refugees to travel to the EU border, in a blunt statement, Erdogan stated earlier this month that “European countries need to support Turkey’s policy in northwestern Syria if they genuinely want to solve the migrant crisis”.
The European reaction has ranged from anger to understanding. While Germany has voiced support for the Turkish position, the French foreign minister Jean-Yves Drian said that “the EU will not yield to Erdogan’s blackmail”. The EU itself has voiced similar views. The president of the EU commission, Ursula von der Leyen, gave support to Greece, which borders Turkey.
Greece is at the forefront of preventing refugees from entering the EU's Schengen area. Von der Leyen called the country a shield, which is protecting Europe, while disbursing $700 million to help it tide over the crisis. The Greek Prime Minister Mitsotákis was harsher on Erdogan. He said that Turkey had become “the official trafficker of migrants to the European Union” and was using “desperate people to promote its geopolitical agenda and to divert attention from the horrible situation in Syria”.
The accusation is largely true. Those trying to reach Greece, after Turkey’s decision to allow refugees into Europe, have little to do with the recent rise in temperature in northern Syria. Even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, admitted that those arriving in Greece were not from north Syria. That means, these migrants were already residing in refugee camps in Turkey and should be covered by the EU-Turkey migrants-deal of 2016.
To be fair to Turkey, the country is indeed hosting a disproportionate number of refugees in its territory. There may be anywhere between two to four million people residing in refugee camps in the country. Despite this, it is difficult to generate sympathy for Ankara. There are many reasons for it. Firstly, the refugees are a result of Syria’s destruction which in turn is partly due to Turkey’s own enthusiastic participation in the country’s civil war. Secondly, President Erdogan has been portraying himself as the leader of the Islamic world. Providing shelter to millions of suffering Muslims could be an attempt by him to further his political agenda. Thirdly, Erdogan has been deeply involved in geopolitical games in the region. He has been playing Russia and the West against each other while intervening militarily in Syria and Libya. Fourthly, Turkish army has been accused of ethnic cleansing of Kurds from northern Syria. In light of these arguments, Erdogan’s claim to have humanitarian concerns for Syrian refugees seem extremely hollow.
The world population is continuing to grow. Humans add about 80 million inhabitants to the planet every year. Earth is now nearing a population of 8 billion humans. As the planet reaches its limit to sustain such large numbers, conflicts among states, ethnicities, regions and religions are growing. In such a scenario, migration of humans looking for better pastures has become common. Even in West Asia, those wanting to go to Europe from Asia through Turkey are not just Syrians but also include Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis.
On the other hand, we see an increasing resistance by richer states to migration, including legal immigration. Amusingly, we also see states responsible for creating refugees in the first place either through their geopolitical ambitions or imprudent domestic situation, attempting to shame the more successful states for not taking them in. States like Pakistan and Turkey immediately come to mind. In light of the recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) controversy in India, one would do well to study the pattern of human migration and responses of global actors to it. This will help in making a long-term assessment. The Indian subcontinent has high density of population and New Delhi should develop a contingency plan for mass movement of people in the region.
Rajesh Soami (VIF)
13 March 2020
*Rajesh Soami is a Research Scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University currently pursuing PhD in International Relations.