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The EU-Turkey Statement on Refugees:Assessing its Impact on Fundamental Rights

Hülya Kaya’s valuable research covers both the theoretical and practical dimensions of EU-Turkey relations in the post-2011 Arab Uprisings era, mainly drawing from the Turkish thesis on humanitarian and legal perspectives




The ensuing instability in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings has affected not only the hotspots of the uprisings but also neighboring geographies such as Turkey and the European Union (EU). The flow of refugees and their mournful destiny has been the most problematic dimension of the recent internal wars in terms of both their humanitarian and legal aspects.

Hülya Kaya’s timely and well-researched study, The EU-Turkey Statement on Refugees: Assessing Its Impact on Fundamental Rights, enriched with fieldwork data and interviews, specifically addresses the legal and humanitarian outcomes of the refugee dossier between Turkey and the EU authorities. The book is made up of seven chapters, including an introduction and conclusion.

As Kaya mentions in the introductory first chapter, following the tragic death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi on September 2, 2015, the EU member states immediately started negotiations with Turkey on the refugee issue, and a Joint Action Plan was signed on October 15, 2015. However, in light of the intensive flow of refugees toward the continent, the EU authorities offered a new model to Turkey to prevent the huge flow that was causing panic in Europe. The EU-Turkey Statement or ‘refugee deal’ was signed on March 18, 2016; it aimed at removing the refugees from Greece before their arrival beyond the Aegean islands (pp. 1-3). An important motivating factor of the deal for Turkey was an extra € six billion of financial support, but the Turkish government suspended the implementation of the Statement unilaterally on July 23, 2019, claiming that the EU was not fulfilling its promise of visa liberalization for Turkish nationals (pp. 7-8).

Though the EU authorities present the agreement as a humanitarian act preventing the tragic death of refugees, Kaya’s main claim is that the EU is pursuing an externalization policy of the complete outsourcing of refugee protection to Turkey, a country already hosting 4.5 million refugees, despite its insufficient financial and logistic capabilities. Kaya discusses the political and legal aspects of the issue by focusing on the legal and institutional deficiencies in Turkey and providing documentation of field realities that reveal the real consequences of the refugee deal for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

The second chapter explains readmission agreements and their compatibility with the principle of non-refoulment, the right to seek asylum, and the effective protection of refugees by drawing attention to the contradictory responses of nation-states toward refugees and asylum seekers. One of the main focal points of the chapter is the theoretical, fundamental rights of refugees, particularly the right to seek asylum, the principle of nonrefoulement, and the practical circumstances (in this case, the externalization of migration control to third countries) that violate those rights. This theoretical section designates the EU-Turkey ‘refugee deal’ as an example of an outright containment scheme to completely outsource border control and thwart departures (p. 56) and describes the urgent and definite need for a burden-sharing mechanism between the EU and transit/third countries such as Turkey (pp. 69-70).

The EU-Turkey Agreement is elaborated in-depth and explored along with its legal and political background in the third chapter. While presenting the international political framework of the 2015-2016 era, Kaya follows the chronological process of the deal and the readmission negotiations and highlights the legal and institutional troubles in both Turkey and Greece that cause huge suffering for the refugees. The chapter designates the Turkish decision to change its generous ‘open-gate’ policy toward Syrian refugees and close its borders to them following the EU-Turkey Statement as a critical milestone for ordinary refugees. One of the main points touched by Kaya is the lack of any monitoring system and suspension clause in the EU-Turkey readmission agreement (RA), an omission that increases unlawful deportations and leads to infringement of the principle of non-refoulment (p. 107).

The fourth chapter focuses on the Turkish legal system and explains asylum law, critically investigating how EU-Turkey cooperation on the refugee issue affects Turkey’s delivery of its human rights obligations. This chapter starts with detailed background information about the history of Turkey’s domestic asylum laws from nationalization toward Europeanization. It also presents the practical process and legal procedures that refugees and detainees face, such as removal centers, procedural safeguards, legal assistance, translators, etc. The section ends with the legal grounds for the deportation of foreigners, in particular asylum seekers and refugees.

Following the initial four theoretical chapters, Kaya looks at the practical dimension of the refugee issue and shares some fieldwork findings gathered in Turkey as an outcome of her interviews. The author interviewed 18 participants; five representatives of relevant NGOs, four judges, five lawyers, and four senior officials and experts. The fifth and sixth chapters reflect the information received from those interviews regarding their lived experiences and observations of problems occurring during the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement.

The fifth chapter focuses on the problem of civil and political rights, along with the negative consequences of the lack of any legal status of refugees, using the ‘statelessness’ approach of Hannah Arendt. The sixth chapter highlights the difficulties refugees face in accessing their socio-economic rights, including accommodation, healthcare, education services, and labor markets.

The conclusion, or seventh chapter, summarizes the theoretical discussions and fieldwork findings stated throughout the previous chapters and particularly emphasizes the significance of the refoulement process and the need for dignified living conditions for the refugees. This whole process indicates that the EU-Turkey Agreement is inadequate in providing safeguards to meet the refugees’ needs within the context of those two parameters, which means that they live in a precarious, ‘rightless’ position. One main argument advocated in the conclusion is Turkey’s incapability of being a ‘safe third country for refugees,’ contrary to the claim of the EU (p. 230). Moreover, Kaya presents some prospects and suggestions for both parties, putting special emphasis on the mechanism of transmitting the EU’s financial support to Ankara to improve the current, insufficient conditions of the refugees and facilitate the implementation of the agreements.

To summarize, Hülya Kaya’s valuable research covers both the theoretical and practical dimensions of EU-Turkey relations in the post-2011 Arab Uprisings era, mainly drawing from the Turkish thesis on humanitarian and legal perspectives. However, noticeably absent is the EU’s counter political and legal approach and refugees’ own experiences. At this point, given that 85 percent of the world’s refugees live in developing countries, the EU’s deliberate strategy of externalization and outsourcing creates further risks, not only for refugees and regional war-torn communities in the short run but also for Europe and the Union itself in the long run. Thus, the research is recommended not only to the Turkish and European policymakers but also to relevant scholars and NGO networks thanks to its detailed legal, humanitarian and political approach in such an urgent common matter.

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