Greece begins to return migrants to Turkey – whilst MEDMIG project questions policy approach

The first group of migrants who arrived in Greece across the Mediterranean have been returned to Turkey today under a controversial policy adopted by the European Union. For each Syrian migrant returned to Turkey, the EU must take and resettle another Syrian from refugee camps who has made a legitimate request for asylum. However no Syrians have been included in the first group deported from Greece, which includes nationals from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco and Sri Lanka. Turkey has said that it will deport non-Syrians, whilst resettling Syrians in camps. Aid groups have expressed anger at the deal between Turkey and the EU, stating that Turkey is not a safe country for migrants and questioning whether migrants will be properly treated on arrival back in the country.

New research from geographer Professor Heaven Crawley and colleagues, the initial findings from the MEDMIG project (discussed at the RGS-IBG as part of the 21st Century Challenges: Policy Forum event on ‘Europe’s Migration Crisis?‘ on 22 March) suggests that this shift in policy by the EU could lead to greater migrant deaths. Initially writing in the Conversation, and later featured in Newsweek, Professor Heaven Crawley and Dr Nando Sigona, suggest that there is a relationship between decisions made in Europe and deaths at sea as migrants cross the Mediterranean to Greece.

The well-resourced Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation run by the Italian Navy and designed to prevent the loss of migrants’ lives at sea, was replaced in autumn 2014 by the smaller Operation Triton, run by the European Union border agency, Frontex. This was partly fuelled by the belief on the part of policy-makers that rescuing people at sea encouraged them to attempt the dangerous crossing. The researchers suggest that this policy change resulted in hundreds of deaths, including the loss of 800 lives in a single sinking in April 2015.

Professor Crawley and Dr Sigona suggest that a change to the Triton operation following the sinking in April 2015, led to fewer migrant deaths on average each month for the rest of the year. However, since January 2016, there has been a further change to policy, with NATO vessels and the latest undertaking between the EU and Turkey that anyone arriving by sea to Greece will be sent back. Professor Crawley and Dr Sigona argue that as a result of these changes to policy, ‘smugglers will send overcrowded boats across the Aegean using different, longer routes’:

“The fact is that the vast majority of people migrating across the Mediterranean to Europe do so because they believe their lives are in danger and that there is no future for them—or their children—in their home countries or the countries through which they have travelled.

The failure of politicians to acknowledge this and to provide alternative ways for refugees to access protection means that many will continue to risk their lives crossing the sea. And that increasing numbers will die trying.”

The authors suggest that there is some evidence that more dangerous routes for irregular migrants are already opening for the first time, or being re-opened, due to the change in policy. Between 10-17 March this year, Professor Crawley and Dr Sigona report, there was a 47 per cent decrease in the numbers of people arriving by sea to Greece but a 518 per cent increase in the numbers picked up off the Libyan coast: the sea route to Italy from Libya, at over 600km, is more dangerous than the crossing to Greece from Turkey, with one person dead for every 53 arrivals in 2015.

Commenting in the Telegraph on 2nd April on the deal struck between Turkey and the EU, Professor Crawley said: “The problem with this deal is that it just won’t work. The migrants will keep coming…all Europe will have achieved is the loss of the moral high ground.”

Professor Crawley discusses the importance of geography to understanding the dynamics of migration, along with recommendations for policy-makers, in a video interview recorded at the RGS-IBG on 22 March in advance of our 21st Century Challenges: Policy Forum on ‘Europe’s Migration Crisis?’ 

Image: Lampedusa in Hamburg – still here to stay. Rasande Tyskar, Flickr.