Russia’s air campaign in Syria has turned Turkey’s neighbourhood into a more of a tinderbox than ever.
Russia has already raised stakes by its first ever use of cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea and by its repeated incursions of Turkish airspace.
Together with the Al-Assad regime’s major ground offensive in central areas of the country, the Russian involvement in the conflict in Syria is likely to set off another huge wave of refugee movement towards Europe via Turkey.
The European Union’s latest initiative to stem the flow of asylum seekers into its borders by cooperating with Turkey is already in danger of falling behind the fast changing circumstances.
The draft EU-Turkey Action Plan that was agreed in principle by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on his visit to Brussels on Monday, will be discussed further at high-level talks between Turkey and the Commission. The proposals have not been finalised yet but so far, they seem to fall considerably short of Turkey’s expectations.
The core objective of the Action Plan is “to prevent uncontrolled migratory flows from Turkey to the EU”.
In order to achieve this, Turkey is asked to improve conditions in refugee camps, take measures to stop irregular departures to the EU as well as prevent new arrivals to Turkey by increasing border enforcement and combating people smuggling. Turkey is also required to register migrants, provide them with documents, and complete their asylum procedures.
To strengthen Turkey’s capacity, the EU offers increased co-operation, exchange of information and assistance with building of six new refugee reception centres as well as financial assistance, on top of the €1 billion already committed.
The draft plan has been criticized by Human Rights Watch for “shifting the EU governments’ responsibilities toward refugees and asylum seekers to their neighbours”.
While agreeing that increased aid to Turkey was much needed, Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia division director at Human Rights Watch warned that any EU plans to turn Turkey, Serbia, and Macedonia into dumping grounds for asylum seekers would be deeply misguided and could put lives at risk”.
Addressing Association of European Journalists (AEJ) in London this week, Eugenio Ambrosi, European Regional Head of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) said that the camps in Turkey, as well as in Jordan and Lebanon, are overwhelmed with too many refugees. As an answer to my question about what else could be expected of Turkey realistically, “Turkey has already done a lot for Syrians and I am not sure if there is much more that can be asked of Turkey,” he said.
Mr Ambrosia called for a more collaborative approach putting the emphasis on saving lives and protecting rights of refugees as well as tackling trans-national criminal gangs to stop human smuggling.
As the EU braces itself for millions more potential refugees fleeing new air and ground offensives in Syria, it is the increasing tension and war of words between Turkey and Russia that are worrying many that I have spoken to in London this week.
While publicly, they all declare their full support and readiness to defend the NATO member Turkey, doubts are expressed about how skilfully Turkey would handle this crisis with Russia.
More crucially, as one source put it “having the two most unpredictable leaders, Mr Putin and Mr Erdoğan, managing a sensitive situation” seems to be causing the greatest concern.
This post is also available in: Turkish