Therefore, a breakthrough would be possible, despite many other tensions in the relationship. To do this, we have to start from the facts: When it comes to migration, Berlin, Athens and Ankara depend on each other.
Let’s start with the lessons from the last decade. Since 2014, there have been three very different phases of migration cooperation between Turkey and the EU.
The three phases in the migration agreement with Turkey
Phase one lasted until the end of March 2016. During this time, the number of refugees and migrants reaching Greece in boats from Turkey grew to one million in twelve months. Despite a withdrawal agreement with Greece, Turkey took practically no one back. The EU completely lost control.
That was also a time with many deaths. In the year before the EU-Turkey statement in March 2016, more than 1,100 people died in the Aegean.
Phase two lasted from March 2016 to March 2020. That was the time when the EU-Turkey declaration was implemented. Turkey and Greece largely adhered to this, which stated that anyone who arrived on the Greek islands after March 20, 2016 could be sent back from Greece to Turkey following an individual procedure and on the basis of existing EU law , as long as she would receive protection or a fair asylum procedure there.
In April 2016, several hundred people were sent back. The number of people boarding boats fell dramatically, from one million in the twelve months before to 26,000 in the twelve months after. But procedures in Greece took a long time, and many people sat in overcrowded camps like Moria for months before almost all of them were brought to the Greek mainland. For many, the Greek authorities found, Turkey remained unsafe.
A very good development during this time: the number of deaths in the Aegean quickly fell to less than 100 per year after March 2016.
Phase three has been running since March 2020. Since then, Turkey has not officially taken anyone back from Greece. Since then, Greece has relied on illegal violence and pushbacks, including in the Aegean. During this phase, the number of people arriving in Greece initially fell to fewer than 300 in September 2020. In September 2023 it was back to 11,000 in just one month. At the same time, Turkey continued to stop tens of thousands of migrants in its waters in 2022 and 2023, and welcomed back tens of thousands more who were pushed back by Greece on plastic boats
The number of deaths in the Aegean rose again to almost 400 in 2022.
Status quo not in the interests of Berlin, Athens or Ankara
Germany is the main destination country for those who reach the EU from Turkey. It is therefore of great importance for Berlin what happens next. In fact, Turkey is currently taking back and controlling tens of thousands of people from Greece every year. If they stopped doing this, the situation at the Greek maritime border would quickly get out of control. The situation would also worsen for the more than three million Syrians in the country.
The status quo is not in the interests of Berlin, Athens or Ankara: constant violation of EU law through pushbacks, no official withdrawals, increasing numbers of irregular entrants, growing tensions against Syrians in Turkey.
A much better solution would therefore be for Turkey to once again officially declare its willingness to quickly take back anyone from Greece and Bulgaria from a new deadline who could receive a fair asylum procedure or protection as a Syrian in Turkey, in order to stop this irregular migration legally and quickly to reduce. And in return, Greece, Germany and other states would promise Turkey, as in 2016, the legal admission of refugees in orderly procedures. To this end, the EU would provide additional financial resources for communities in Turkey with many refugees and, in concrete terms, immediate visa relief for Turkish citizens.
It would be even better if Turkey fulfilled the human rights conditions of the visa liberalization roadmap that has existed since 2013, implemented all judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, and also quickly took back its own citizens from the EU who were required to leave the country. And then, as promised in 2016, the EU would lift the visa requirement for Turkish citizens. Despite other tensions: a win-win-win solution (good for Berlin, Ankara and the refugee system) would be possible, necessary and feasible.
Because one thing is the same today as it was in 2016: The German government’s promise to reduce irregular migration without human rights violations cannot be achieved without cooperation with Turkey.