Dimitris Christopoulos : "Refugees are the bogeyman: the real threat is the far right"

© FIDH - Andrew Knobloch

This op-ed by FIDH President Dimitris Christopoulos- was published in Open Democracy on 9 November 2016.

The EU-Turkey deal was more an attack on the rising far right than on refugee flows across the Aegean Sea. Yet, it hasn’t worked.

Nobody was happy when the EU signed its infamous refugee deal with Turkey in March 2016. All parties involved were, to varying degrees, extremely cautious. The deal was (and still is) very demanding: Turkey is to accept returning refugees and migrants, limit their departure, and implement a considerable number of reforms in order to revive its pre-accession negotiations with the EU. Greece must detain all new arrivals and return them to Turkey in ways which formally meet minimal human rights standards, while at the same time process the asylum requests of those already on Greek territory when the deal went into force. Finally, the EU’s other member states must not only accept the relocation and resettlement of Syrian refugees from Greece and Turkey, but also accept the lifting of visa requirements for Turkish citizens.

Already bordering on mission impossible, political events in Europe and Turkey have made this even more difficult. In June voters in the United Kingdom, driven by anti-immigration rhetoric, chose Brexit, a painful vote of no confidence from one of the EU’s biggest member states. Right-wing nationalist parties made gains in several member states, including Germany, and a failed coup in Turkey precipitated a brutal crackdown on ‘dissidents’, Kurds, members of the Gülen movement, and anybody else who questions its methods or goals.

The Turkish state’s increasing disregard for human rights makes the already questionable EU-Turkey deal incredibly problematic, and in other circumstances it would (hopefully) give European governments pause for thought. However, due to the visibly growing strength of the far right across Europe it says nothing. European governments feel they need the former to combat the latter, and thus as long as Turkey prevents further migrants from crossing the Aegean, no need for further pressure.
Why did the flows across the Aegean cease?

A widely-shared belief in Europe, in both policy and popular circles, is that the 18 March EU-Turkey deal has severely curtailed the refugee and migrant flows from Turkey to the EU via Greece. This belief suggests that Turkey somehow holds a magic wand that it can use, like a policeman directing traffic, to stop the flows of migrants. It’s a belief that also gives Turkey leverage, as it suggests Turkey could just as easily ‘open the floodgates’ as it has closed them.

Yet, this is a misconception. The flows from Turkey to Greece did not stop because of the deal. Migratory movements instead slowed from the very moment the Macedonian authorities sealed the Balkan corridor by closing the crossing at Idomeni, the end result of a domino effect that started in Austria and crossed all of former Yugoslavia before ending at Greece.

The de facto passage via Idomeni had already started to close in November 2015, when Greece’s northern neighbour decided to ban entrance to its territory for everybody except Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi citizens. As the months progressed the rules became progressively more strict. Afghans were prohibited entry in late February 2016, and on 6 March the border closed to Syrians and Iraqis as well.

This impacted the number of people attempting to cross the Aegean Sea. In February 2016 Greece was still seeing on average 2000 new arrivals a day, but from the moment the Idomeni access route was sealed this number fell to 800 a day, according to UNHCR data. After the deal was signed, the 800 fell again to mere tens of new arrivals daily.

It is obvious from these numbers that arrivals were drastically reduced much before the EU-Turkey Deal. This was perhaps due in part to the impending winter, or to Turkey increasing control before the deal as a show of good faith, but it was also certainly due to the border closure effected between November 2015 and March 2016. People simply stopped coming to Greece because they did not want to be trapped like the approximately 50,000 people who entered Greece when the Balkan corridor was closed and before the EU-Turkey Deal was signed.

Some, of course, still came. They have ended up in horrific, newly created detention centres with no hope of relocation, resettlement or even return. Greece is also caught within this painful picture. Already punished by austerity, the country has now become a buffer state and refugee warehouse. This is the nub of the Greeks’ impasse and painful dilemma: Greek society has the potential for integrating new arrivals, but any attempt to improve migrants’ conditions or comply with integration policies signals to other member states that the decision to turn their backs on Greece is acceptable. This is a recipe for administrative paralysis in any country and the core reason why the Greek state does not want to deliver. As a result of this and the EU-Turkey deal, Greek islands today are on the verge of imploding, since thousands of people are stored and detained there.

Athens – Dublin – Berlin

The European Commission continually requests updates from Greece regarding the improvement of detention conditions. Is this out of humanitarian interest? Is it because of concern for the deplorable performance of a member state’s detention system? No, of course not. The EC is instead concerned with lifting the court-ordered ban in many countries on returning migrants to Greece under the Dublin regulations, which allow for sending migrants back to their country of first arrival to seek asylum there.

This ban resulted from the European Court of Human Right’s landmark ruling in MSS v. Greece and Belgium, which found that the Greek asylum process was so woeful that it amounted to a breach of Article 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and that Belgium violated Articles 3 and 13 of the convention by returning the claimant to Greece. Many national administrative courts in northern Europe have since frozen governments’ ability to invoke this aspect of the Dublin Regulations with regard to Greece, given that the detention conditions there were equated to torture.

Should the suspension be lifted, some thousands of refugees who went through Greece in 2015-2016 could be returned to Greece, the country where they first entered EU soil. This puts Greece in a quandary. Should Greece improve detention conditions to the point where the moribund Dublin Regulations regulations are reapplied, and thus potentially receive 50,000 or 100,000 more refugees? No matter how much pressure is put on Greece, this will not happen. It will not take this risk.

The Dublin system, therefore, is at the heart of the EU’s failure to cope with the current situation. Bold measures are now needed to change it. As long as it is there, the hope that either northern or southern countries of Europe will assume or share responsibility remains improbable. Inaugurating a common European reception system means reforming the Dublin Regulations and abolishing the EU-Turkey Deal. Otherwise, the situation is hopeless.

If a frank and constructive approach is genuinely sought regarding Europe’s cynical stance described above, then we first need to admit that the EU-Turkey deal has worked far better as a political message than as an effective block on Aegean crossings. The deal signalled to European populations that they could rest easy again; refugees would not come knocking at their door because someone elsewhere – be it in Greece or Turkey – was doing the dirty job of gatekeeper.

It signalled to Turkey and Greece that their new roles are now squarely as buffer states, and for their trouble they would receive favours: for Turkey, visas for its citizens; for Greece, some understanding regarding other sources of public finance. Finally, refugees were also sent a message with the EU-Turkey deal. The story was no longer “wir schaffen das” – German chancellor Angela Merkel’s slogan of ‘we’ve got this’ – but ‘we’re taking back control’. Such messages are meaningful and deliver political consequences. Thus the EU-Turkey deal becomes the bogeyman of refugees and the guard dog of the Europeans.
The bogeyman and the real threat

This is how the deal is supposed to be working: as a deterrent for refugees and as an obstacle for the extreme right. With no more refugees in Europe, there is no need to turn to radical solutions. Yet, the recipe does not seem to deliver much. Far right parties and movements are enjoying electoral exposure, particularly on the issue of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, while most center-left or center-right wing governments sink further into the moral morass.

The EU-Turkey deal gives false comfort to Europe’s politicians, who believe they might be able to stave off the rise of the far right with a show of strength. On first reading, the argument appears well founded: the presence of migrants and refugees along with the logistical difficulties of managing the influx provides fertile ground for consolidating far right discourse. The UK has already voted to jump ship in large part because of the fears whipped up by far-right, anti-immigrant rhetoric in that country. The anti-immigrant, nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AFD) is also making gains, as are similar parties elsewhere. But, if the refugee flows are curtailed, the wind might be taken out of the far right’s sails. That said, even the most sincere supporters of the deal are unlikely to believe that all the parties involved will deliver on what’s been promised.

The mainstream European parties cannot publicly confess this: that refugees bring the extreme right with them, and that they are trying to keep one out to keep out the other. Yet, if we keep out refugees and migrants in order to avoid the rise of the far right, we ourselves become the beast we are fighting against.

But, even dressed in the clothes of their enemies, the mainstream politicians aren’t all that convincing – and by donning these ill-fitting suits they empower the people they are trying to undermine. Given the choice between middle-class career politicians speaking the loveless, dry and depoliticised language of functional expediency and the furious demagogues speaking the emotional language of sovereignty, people would choose the latter. And this is what they have started to do, despite (or maybe because of) the EU-Turkey deal and other similar measures.

Imagine the youthful, slim and well-dressed Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sebastian Kurtz, who for months has been feeding the most despicable feelings of his people towards foreigners with his rhetoric. Put next to him an impassioned, raging Austrian fascist. If you are really afraid of migrants, who would you ask to protect you? It would naturally be the latter. This is what the Austrians are close to doing. And this is why we run the risk of seeing the first extreme, right-wing head of state elected in one of the countries that impelled us into the second world war.


The EU must examine critically its ‘achievements’. Few words might be needed to confess that we are going wrong, but that confession must be matched by deeds and actions. We must admit that the ‘bogeyman deal’ not only cannot work, but that it is also sending out a message that is poisoning future European cohesion. Germany has the opportunity to lead Europeans to the moral high ground here and, one might say, a historical duty to do so.

Germany revealed its strength as the EU powerhouse, imposing austerity politics on Greece and elsewhere in Europe. Yet she demonstrates a far more flexible position when it comes to the Visegrad Group’s management of refugees – the collective term for Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – a miserable reminder of the darkest inter-war days for Mitteleuropa. It needs to apply its strength here too. The worst possible tactic is to show fear and fill the beast with self-confidence, making it all the more dangerous. Let’s not fear the bogeyman of refugees, a threat which doesn’t exist. The far right, on the other hand, is really there. Let us be cautious then. It is not only an issue of principles and rights. It is an issue of peace: a signal of European prudence after all.

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