Europe's Failed Refugee Policy

The Crisis in the Mediterranean Continues

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

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