Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu have on various occasions warned the European Union that a new refugee flow will take place in the post-pandemic era unless Turkey’s demands including a visa free regime for Turkish citizens and a new trade deal are not met.
The public remarks suggest that the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is bent on exploiting the refugee issue in its relations with the EU in order to extract concessions in ongoing talks with European officials.
Çavuşoğlu gave an interview to Alanya DIM TV, a local channel broadcasting over the Internet, on May 24, and answered questions about Turkish foreign policy and efforts to improve a tourism sector hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have witnessed a slowing down [of the refugee flow] due to the pandemic. We, however, had to send this message [to the EU]: If you use the pandemic as an excuse not to cooperate with Turkey, you can’t knock on our door when the pandemic ends,” said Çavuşoğlu.
“There were migrants who wanted to reach the Greek border, but their flow has slowed due to the pandemic. I’m not saying this to threaten [the EU], but they will again head [towards Europe].”
In a televised interview with Akit TV, a government mouthpiece, on May 12, Çavuşoğlu had already underlined the fact that Turkey’s “open door policy” was continuing. “Our open door policy is continuing. We never shut it down. Of course, anybody who wants to go can go; we aren’t putting any obstacles in their way. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, naturally people aren’t going, and it has slowed down.”
Çavuşoğlu made the latest remarks a few hours after aphone call with Josep Borrell, the high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy, on May 23. According to a statement by Borrell, they discussed “the situation in in the Middle East, and bilateral EU-Turkey relations” during the call.
“The agreement should be revised. An approach such as ‘I’ll pay for it, but migrants will remain in your country’ is wrong. As repeatedly stated by High Representative Borrell on several platforms including the European Parliament, it is a comprehensive agreement. We have found during these difficult times that we need each other, but the EU needs Turkey more. I don’t say this as the Turkish foreign minister, but it’s a reality,” Çavuşoğlu said.
On March 18, 2016, the European Council and Turkey reached an agreement aimed at stopping the flow of irregular migration via Turkey to Europe. Under the deal, Turkey was promised 6 billion euros in financial aid to be used by the Turkish government to finance projects for Syrian refugees. At the end of February, Turkey allowed the passage of refugees to Europe through its western borders, which remained open until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Responding to a question by journalist Christian Feiland, the head of Foreign Media Association based in Istanbul, Çavuşoğlu underlined that Turkey had completely fulfilled its commitments under the EU-Turkey refugee deal. “Turkey fulfilled its commitments completely under the migration agreement. I advise Christian to read the full text of the agreement. He then can inform us of the commitments that were fulfilled and which were unfulfilled by the EU. You will see the injustice against Turkey,” he said.
He also touched on the EU-Turkey initiative that was decided during a visit to Brussels by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on March 9, 2020. According to the plan, teams headed by Çavuşoğlu and Borrell will work to clarify the implementation of the deal.
“If it was in the EU, Turkey could have conducted a stronger fight [against COVID-19]. Several member states criticized the EU with regards to the pandemic. The solidarity was shaken. An advanced relationship is to everyone’s advantage. We should revise the agreement on migration. The customs union agreement should also be revised. Visa liberalization should be granted. We have to be more decisive in the fight against terrorism. There are many common steps to be taken, and we, to this end, initiated a plan to work together with Borrell after President Erdoğan’s visit to Brussels. I hope we can make progress in this regard,” Çavuşoğlu said.
In Brussels the EU leaders warned Erdoğan to respect the terms of the previous deal to keep migrants away from Europe’s borders. After the meeting, Erdoğan chose to head straight for the airport rather than to a news conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel.
At the end of February, President Erdoğan announced Turkey had opened its borders with Greece to migrants and refugees, after which Greece saw an influx until the outbreak of the pandemic.
Turkey’s Interior Minister Soylu coordinated the flow of refugees into Greece and Bulgaria. In line with the migration deal agreed with the EU in 2016, Turkey was limiting the flow in exchange for European funding. Speaking to CNN Türk on March 4, Soylu stressed that refugees who cross into Europe would soon top a million and that European governments would fall due to the economic destabilization resulting from it, adding that Turkey would let all non-Syrian refugees including those from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Algeria, Morocco and Africa go to Europe as well.
On March 18 the Turkish government announced that it would be closing its borders with EU countries Greece and Bulgaria due to the COVID-19 lockdown. However, Soylu had warned on March 27 that Europe-bound migrants would be able to return to the Greek-Turkish land border once the pandemic receded.
“Let me tell you something that the public doesn’t yet know. This is perhaps new information. As of last night [March 26], we evacuated the Pazarkule [Kastanies] border area. We took refugees back to nine provinces,” he said, after ordering the evacuation of men, women and children from the region. “We will host them in deportation centers. We had run the operation from evening till morning. Approximately 5,800 refugees were removed from there. We did this as a precautionary move. We had to do it. However, nobody should feel comfortable about this yet. When this pandemic is over, whoever wants to go to Pazarkule [the Turkish-Greek border area] we are not going to say ‘no’.” In response to the moderator asking if this was a policy change, Soylu said: “Not at all. We only took this step for health and humanitarian reasons.”