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OPINION: Re-thinking EU-Turkey co-operation over migration

Turkey’s military offensive in Afrin is also an example of how refugees are instrumentalized to gain domestic support for foreign policy ambitions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz upon his arrival at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany on January 17, 2018. NurPhoto/Press Associations. All rights reserved.

From integration policies to electoral politics, migration is often discussed as a domestic policy issue. Yet rarely does its possible connection with foreign policy attract attention (see a few exceptions).

One recent example is Megan Barlow’s latest openDemocracy article where she argues that the Turkish government employs refugees not only as political tools for foreign ambitions, but also for reinforcing a conservative and Islamist ideology. My argument follows the same line of thought by situating Turkey’s instrumentalization of refugees in the context of its co-operation with the EU over migration.

Hosting the highest number of refugees from Syria, around 3.5 million, Turkey’s refugee and foreign policy have been increasingly intertwined in recent years, especially since 2015 which was a year of crisis for both the EU and Turkey. By providing a chronology of the domestic and regional events occurring since then, I suggest that the EU-Turkey Statement on refugees, and the preceding Joint Action Plan unintentionally but inextricably intertwined Turkey’s national security concerns on its Syrian border with EU border control management policies.

2015: a year of political crisis for the EU

An unprecedented and rapid refugee movement via the Aegean Sea hit Europe in the fall of 2015. The lack of internal agreement among EU Member States over a common asylum policy, on the one hand, and the upcoming elections in 2016 in several Member States in which the refugees featured prominently on the other hand, turned this unprecedented movement into a political crisis. The EU-Turkey Statement, issued in March 2016, and the preceding Joint Action Plan in November 2015 came as a pragmatic, and supposedly, short-term response to this crisis.

According to the Statement, Turkey agreed to prevent irregular migration to Europe: migrants and asylum-seekers arriving in Greece whose applications had been declared inadmissible or unfounded would be returned to Turkey; and for every Syrian refugee returned from Greece to Turkey, a Syrian would be resettled in Europe – up to a total limit of 72,000.

In return, the EU agreed to grant visa liberalization for Turkish citizens under a number of preconditions including complying with the EU’s data protection and antiterrorism laws; renewing accession talks; new negotiations on the customs union; and financial aid amounting to 3+3 billion euros to support refugees.

2015: a year of political crisis for Turkey

For Turkey, as well, 2015 was a year of turmoil. Turkey, by then, had already reached its institutional capacity to accommodate a high number of refugees. In March 2015, it partially closed the Syrian border, moving away from the open door policy that had been adopted since the eruption of the Syrian war in 2011, and launched a project to build a border wall in September 2016.

Domestically, the parliamentary elections in June 2015 made the continuation of single party rule under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government impossible as the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) passed the ten per cent electoral threshold. In July 2015, the ceasefire between the Kurdistan Workers‘ Army (PKK) and the Turkish army came to an end. An urban war erupted in the Kurdish towns and cities, leading to the death of 3,386 people and to the displacement of an estimated 500,000 people from their homes under the curfews that were implemented across the southeast of Turkey. The AKP subsequently won enough votes in snap elections called for November 2015, and continued as a single party government.

Turkey was also further constrained at the time in regional politics, especially following the involvement of the US and Russia in the Syrian War. The US ground intervention in 2014, aimed at curbing the rise of ISIS in Syria, and its alliance with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) – allegedly an offshoot of the PKK – in the fight against ISIS ran counter to Turkey’s anti-Kurdish position in Syria. The involvement of Russia in September 2015 in support of Bashar Al Assad simultaneously posed a threat to Turkey’s anti-Assad ambitions.

Refugees: a bargaining chip in foreign policy aims

Institutionally, domestically and regionally constrained, Turkey since 2015 have been aggressively pushing for the establishment of safety zones in Northern Syria, allegedly to settle refugees.

On September 4, 2015, in the wake of the death of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi in an Aegean Sea crossing, Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu said that “Turkey tried to convince the international community to establish a safety zone in Syria. They thought that we were pursuing our own national security concerns. So who will protect the Syrians? Today is the day to cooperate and act together.”

In November 2015, Turkey put forward a proposal for safe zones after the YPG captured Tel Abyad in June 2015 and ISIS made gains towards Azaz. In February 2016, the Turkish government revived the proposal with the argument that it could be extended as far as 10 km into Syria in order to help prevent hundreds of refugees from crossing the border as they fled a Russian-backed advance.

As the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is a member, advanced towards the West of Euphrates and captured Manbij in August 2016, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield. In February 2017, Turkey, in cooperation with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) gained control of Al Bab.

Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım during his visit to London in November 2017 suggested that Turkey could renege on the EU-Turkey Statement over refugees if Kurdish forces in Syria were given a role in UN-sponsored peace talks.


The most recent example of Turkey’s instrumentalization of refugees towards the realisation of its foreign policy ambitions is its recent military offensive called “Operation Olive Branch,” which started on January 20, 2018, in the towns and villages around the Kurdish enclave known as Afrin. The military offensive in Afrin came following the US’s announcement that it would build a “border security force” inside Syria that would include the YPG as a key component.

In a speech he delivered in Turkey on January 20, President Erdoğan said that the aim of the operation is “to give Afrin back to its real owners, [..], and to return three and a half million Syrians currently living in Turkey back to their home.” On 23 January, the Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalın similarly noted that “the operation would continue until the three and a half million Syrians currently living in Turkey would go back home.”

Turkish Armed Forces moved into the city centre of Afrin on 17 March and captured the city on 18 March. In a recent interview, former ambassador Volkan Bozkir stated that the Turkish army would remain in Afrin until there was no more PYD presence in the city; and local councils composed of the local population were founded. “After this,” he noted, “500,000 refugees whom we are currently hosting in Turkey will be replaced in Afrin as we did in Al Bab.” The pro-government national broadcaster TRT published on March 27 photos of three families who returned to Afrin.

Instrumentalization of refugees to gain domestic support for foreign policy ambitions

Turkey’s military offensive in Afrin is also an example of how refugees are instrumentalized to gain domestic support for foreign policy ambitions. According to a recent survey, some 89 per cent of those who were surveyed supported the country’s military offensive in Afrin.

A strong anti-Kurdish nationalism that unites otherwise politically opposed actors is the primary precondition for this high level of domestic support. This may include an increasingly visible anti-refugee sentiment that should not be underestimated.

According to a survey conducted by KONDA in 2016, 70 per cent of those who were surveyed stated that it was fine to share the same city with Syrians but the percentages decline to 41 per cent when asked whether they would like to live in the same neighborhood or in the same apartment building. A more recent survey conducted in January 2017 demonstrates that almost 70 per cent of those who were surveyed were worried that Syrians would harm the sociocultural fabric of Turkish society.

This increasing discomfort, and even resentment, among the majority Turkish population towards Syrian refugees also manifests itself in accelerating violence especially in urban centers such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. According to a report published in January 2018 by the International Crisis Group, incidents of intercommunal violence increased threefold in the second half of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016.

Migration management or border management?

Turkey remains a crucial partner for the EU when it comes to border management and the control of refugee movements despite the fact that EU-Turkey relations have increasingly soured since the coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016.

In a recent meeting in Berlin with her Austrian counterpart Sebastian Kurz on January 18, 2018, Chancellor Angela Merkel noted that the “EU-Turkey Statement is exactly the formula that helps protect maritime borders.” In an interview in September 2017 with the Greek daily Kathimerini, French President Emmanuel Macron similarly said that even though Turkey “may have strayed from democracy”, he “wants to avoid a split because Turkey is a vital partner especially in immigration and counter-terrorism.”

Co-operation with Turkey over migration arguably remains to a pragmatic necessity for the EU, given that the EU is still divided concerning relocation and resettlement of the refugees, on the one hand; and that immigration continues to be a hugely controversial factor in political life, on the other.

Yet, this pragmatic necessity puts interests and values in head-on collision. The militarization of Turkey’s domestic Kurdish policy in the summer of 2015, the increasing strength and salience of Kurdish actors in the Syrian war; and EU-Turkey co-operation over migration contingently come together, turning migration management into a first class problem for border management. In this context, the EU-Turkey Statement, and the preceding Joint Action Plan, given their timing, unintentionally intertwined Turkey’s anti-Kurdish security concerns over its Syrian border with the EU‘s wider concerns over border control, to curb refugee movements.


(c) 2018 OpenDemocracy

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