Refugees and migrants struggle to jump off an overcrowded dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing in rough seas from the Turkish coast, October 2015.
Refugees and migrants struggle to jump off an overcrowded dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing in rough seas from the Turkish coast, October 2015.
Dimitris Michalakis / Reuters

After the United Kingdom’s stunning decision to exit the EU last week, the bloc has entered a period of soul-searching. As European leaders confront the aftermath of the historic Brexit vote, they will be exploring ways to reform and reinvent their beleaguered union to make it more appealing to Europeans. One of the central issues they should put back on the table for a rethink is the EU’s response to the refugee crisis, which has continued to unfold in the Mediterranean even as the Brexit debacle has transfixed Europe. 

When the EU and Turkey reached a refugee deal in March, we argued in Foreign Affairs that the agreement was “utterly unworkable for logistical, legal, and political reasons” and predicted that it would unravel, forcing European leaders back to the drawing board. Since then, as the flow of refugees from Turkey into Greece has plummeted, EU leaders have repeatedly declared the deal a success. In fact, they are looking to replicate the EU-Turkey deal across parts of Africa and the Middle East, according to an EU migration policy proposal announced in early June.

Although the EU’s deal with Turkey has reduced the flow of refugees into Greece, its success is illusory, and it provides a poor model for the EU’s overall approach to migration. First, it was the Balkan countries’ decision to close the migration route from the Mediterranean to Germany in March—and not the EU-Turkey deal itself—that has been responsible for much of the slowdown in refugee arrivals in Greece. Second, the deal seems likely to unravel; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the EU have accused one another of reneging on their sides of the bargain. Third, the deal has been a humanitarian and public relations disaster, with human rights groups denouncing it as illegal and an overwhelming majority of Europeans unhappy with the EU’s handling of the crisis. In their desperation to slow the flow of refugees, European leaders have kowtowed to Erdogan even as he has tightened his authoritarian grip on power at home and tried to silence critics in Europe. 

Ultimately, the deal has failed to address the underlying flaws in the EU’s border control and asylum policies. Borders have sprung up across what was once the borderless Schengen area, and thousands of refugees are still dying in their desperate efforts to reach Europe. The EU cannot wish away these problems by trying to outsource its migration policy to leaders in developing countries. If the EU wants to restore free movement within the Schengen area, end the humanitarian catastrophe in the Mediterranean, and stay true to its values, it must introduce more profound reforms. Moreover, dealing effectively with the refugee crisis is crucial if the EU wants to restore its sinking reputation among voters.  


Defenders of the EU-Turkey deal point to the dramatic decrease in the flow of refugees from Turkey to the Greek islands in recent months, from an average of 1,904 arrivals per day in February to an average of only 47 per day in May. But it is impossible to determine how much of this decrease was a result of the EU-Turkey deal rather than the closure of the so-called Balkan route. Arrivals to Greece had already begun to slow in the second half of February as a result of Macedonia’s sporadic border closures. Then, on March 8, Macedonia shut its border with Greece completely, closing down the Balkan route to Germany less than two weeks before the deal came into effect.

European leaders have kowtowed to Erdogan even as he has tightened his authoritarian grip on power.

Just as the flow of refugees across the Aegean to Greece was decreasing, movement across the Mediterranean into Italy was increasing significantly, from an average of 132 arrivals per day in February to an average of 641 in May. The influx of refugees into Italy was not simply the product of rerouting from the closed Balkan route to a new path into Europe. Most refugees crossing the Aegean prior to March were Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani, and Iranian. These days, most of those crossing the Mediterranean are African. Nevertheless, the new influx of refugees underlines the fact that closing one route has not solved Europe’s refugee crisis. The human toll of this ongoing failure can be seen in the horrific images of drowned refugee children. Even as refugee deaths in the Aegean fell to zero in the last week of May, 1,083 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean. 


The EU-Turkey deal rested on a quid pro quo. Turkey would do more to prevent the smuggling of refugees to Greece and would accept the return of any refugees that did slip through, and in exchange the EU would pay Turkey an additional three billion euros to care for refugees, grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens, and speed up EU accession negotiations. Finally, for each smuggled Syrian refugee returned from Greece to Turkey, the EU would resettle one Syrian directly from Turkey to any EU country that was willing to accept him or her.

Refugees and migrants wait to take part in a pre-registration process that gives them access to the asylum procedure in Athens, Greece, June 2016.
Refugees and migrants wait to take part in a pre-registration process that gives them access to the asylum procedure in Athens, Greece, June 2016.
Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

Today, nearly every aspect of this bargain has unraveled. Fewer than 500 migrants, including only 31 Syrians, have actually been returned from Greece to Turkey. All of them were migrants who did not apply for asylum in Greece and agreed to be returned to Turkey “voluntarily.” Just over 500 Syrians have been relocated from Turkey to the EU under the EU-Turkey deal, with only eight of the EU’s member states participating in this process so far; others have refused outright to take in any Syrians. Thousands of refugees in Greece have applied for asylum there, and earlier this month, an asylum appeals board blocked the deportation of nine Syrians to Turkey on the basis that Turkey did not constitute a “safe country” for Syrian refugees—an assessment shared by leading human rights organizations. The EU—normally a champion of human rights and judicial independence—found itself in the repugnant position of pressuring Greek authorities to reshape the asylum appeals board that had blocked deportations and to put in place a new board that would allow them.

Even if Greek authorities do agree to send more refugees back, Turkey is threatening to shut the door on readmissions. The Turkish government has argued that the EU is failing to deliver on its promise of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. The EU insists Turkey must first meet all of the conditions the EU has set for visa liberalization.


The EU has long strived to cultivate an image as a “normative power” committed to the defense of human rights and the rule of law across Europe and the world. The deal with Turkey is doing enormous, perhaps irreparable, damage to the EU’s standing in that regard. Conditions for the roughly 55,000 refugees stuck in Greece have deteriorated since late March as a direct result of the deal. Refugee camps on Greek islands have been turned into detention centers while refugees wait to submit asylum requests or have them processed, prompting a number of NGOs to withdraw from the country in protest. Following a fact-finding mission in mid-May, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants announced that there was an “unacceptable level of confusion, frustration, violence and fear” at the detention centers. On the island of Chios, media reports revealed that Greek officials in the underresourced Vial camp were able to give babies only 100ml of formula per day, about one-quarter of the recommended amount.

Conditions on the mainland are no better. Human Rights Watch declared that living standards in makeshift camps in Piraeus were “abysmal.” Some refugees in Athens reportedly turned to prostitution in order to make money when they arrived in the capital. The large camp that sprung up along the Macedonian border in Idomeni held around 8,400 refugees and migrants and only emptied in late May once Greek officials had completed official shelters near Thessaloniki.

The new influx of refugees underlines the fact that closing one route has not solved Europe’s refugee crisis.

Greece can hardly be blamed for the terrible living conditions that refugees and migrants face. The country is buckling under five years of economic and financial crisis, as well as a raft of new austerity measures recently passed by parliament to qualify for a tranche of EU bailout money. The Europeans promised to help Greece cope with its refugee burden as part of the EU-Turkey deal, but they have not yet made good on that promise. Of the 1,916 EU civil servants pledged to help implement the deal, fewer than 200 have actually been deployed, and EU funding to support refugees in Greece remains wholly inadequate.


The migrant crisis has ended 20 years of passport-free movement within the Schengen area as a succession of states, including Austria, Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Sweden, have reimposed border controls to halt the flow of refugees. In May, these controls were extended for another six months. If European leaders want to restore freedom of movement within the Schengen area, it will not be enough to bribe Turkey or governments in Africa and the Middle East to keep migrants at home. European governments will also need to follow through on their recent agreement to establish a common European Border and Coast Guard and on a Commission proposal for far-reaching reform of the EU’s common rules on asylum.

A general view of the Harran refugee camp in the Sanliurfa province, Turkey, June 2016.
A general view of the Harran refugee camp in the Sanliurfa province, Turkey, June 2016.
Umit Bektas / Reuters

Moving ahead with cooperation on border control in the coming months will be relatively easy, as even the most Euroskeptic governments now accept that that the EU needs to have a stronger common external border. However, policymakers will find it much harder, if not impossible, to reach a consensus on reforms to the EU’s broken asylum system, especially after the Brexit referendum, which revealed strong anti-immigrant sentiments.

To share the refugee burden more fairly and to prevent free riding by states loath to take in any refugees, the Commission has proposed assigning each state a quota of refugees and fining governments up to 250,000 euros for each refugee in their quota they refuse to accept. This proposal is already facing fierce opposition from several governments, with Hungary, for example, announcing that it will hold a referendum on the redistribution of migrants. In the wake of the Brexit vote and in the current climate of rising Euroskepticism and xenophobia, it is almost impossible to imagine this proposal being adopted. 

But even if member states won’t accept sticks, they may agree to carrots. Although fining member states that refuse to take in refugees may be a political non-starter, member states might agree to establish new funding sources to support states that face a disproportionate refugee burden. The EU already has funding mechanisms in place to support refugees in EU member states, but these must be scaled up considerably. Leaders should embrace creative proposals, such as Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s call for the EU to raise money by issuing migration bonds or German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s call to establish a European gas tax to finance care for refugees. They might also reinvigorate the stalled proposal for a tax on financial transactions by suggesting that its revenue be used by overburdened member governments to finance care for refugees. 

Each of these proposals currently faces political opposition from different member states. But adopting this sort of positive approach would take some of the wind out of the sails of xenophobes such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczyński, and Slovakia’s Robert Fico, who play on voters’ fears of refugees. Also, a dramatic infusion of EU funding to support the care of refugees within Europe would go some way toward shifting the dominant narrative that the EU is primarily a source of austerity measures, a narrative that is responsible for much of the decline in public support for the EU. Instead of simply imposing harsh cuts on struggling societies, the EU should be seen as supporting solidarity for communities in Europe struggling to cope with the refugee burden. To be sure, the EU should use its aid budget and all diplomatic tools at its disposal to address the root causes of migration from Africa and the Middle East. But instead of raising billions more euros to try to replicate the unsustainable EU-Turkey deal across Africa and the Middle East, the EU should establish new funding sources to support the care of refugees across Europe, particularly in frontline member states such as Greece and Italy.

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