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The High Price of Ending the Refugee Crisis

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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There is an excellent reason for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to want a good relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: The European Union's March deal with Turkey appears to have defused the refugee crisis for now. Merkel can now concentrate on political damage control and on restoring her position in the EU, undermined by a costly flutter of her compassionate heart last year.

Germany's migration agency is still registering tens of thousands of asylum applications per month: 58,315 first-time applicants filed their paperwork in March, about 13 percent of the record-breaking 2015 total and more than in all of 2011. That, however, is mainly the backlog. Despite the latest tragedy in the Mediterranean in which as many as 500 people may have drowned between Libya and Italy, the Mediterranean refugee route is nowhere as busy as it was even during the more perilous winter months. This specifically concerns the easiest route -- from Turkey to Greece across the Aegean Sea.

Data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show that the deal with Turkey -- which allows Europe to return undocumented immigrants to that country in exchange for legally accepting an equal number of Syrians from Turkish refugee camps -- has all but closed it:

In the fall, there were days when up to 10,000 people arrived by boat on the Greek islands. Earlier this month, those numbers shrank to fewer than 100 a day on average. 

In a recent post, Jacob Funk Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics attributed the drying-up of the refugee river not to the EU-Turkey agreement but to ad-hoc border control measures imposed by countries along the route, particularly Macedonia, where troops have no qualms about using rubber bullets against refugees trying to cross the border from Greece. Kirkegaard wrote that other nations are likely to implement similar measures if the refugees seek alternative routes:

"Bulgaria and Albania would immediately replicate the Macedonian policy if flows through their territories increased, and the cost of the sea journey across the Mediterranean to Italy—where bigger boats are required—will be much higher than across the narrow Aegean Sea to Greek islands from Turkey. Numbers might reach the tens of thousands through such alternative routes but not levels high enough to become the kind of political emergency Europe experienced in late 2015 and early 2016."

It's probably true that the ice-cold welcome refugees have received along their path to Germany must have contributed to the declining flows. Yet the border fences, police harassment and army operations against the immigrants have been around for some time, and they can't explain the spectacular drop in recent arrivals in Greece. 

The Turkish deal is clearly working. The deportations started on April 4, and 325 people have been returned from Greece, the EU said in a report released Wednesday. It fails to name the specific number of refugees accepted from Turkey in return, but the EU wants to keep their number within a 54,000-person quota to send a strong message to refugee communities that the risks of trying to get to Europe now outweigh the advantages.

The message, however, will be watered down if Turkey doesn't do its part by admitting deportees. So the deal has costs: For example, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has threatened to stop enforcing the agreement unless the EU allows Turks visa-free travel by June. European officials would like to wiggle out of their commitment to expedite this, but there's little wiggle room. Bottling up Syrian refugees in Turkey -- which reportedly sometimes shoots them when they try to come in and which is unable to provide them with work -- is far from a humane solution, but it's the only one that can remove the immediate political threat to Merkel and quell a ripening rebellion against German dominance in the EU.

The result is a typical EU solution to a crisis: It relies on harsh ad-hoc measures from Balkan nations, some of which aren't even EU members or destination countries for immigrants; a shaky deal with a fickle authoritarian ruler, who is prone to going after European comedians who insult him; and, most of all, on word-of-mouth among desperate, displaced people. This is a ball of nasty compromises and betrayals of European values, tied together with string -- or perhaps with nothing more than the hope that it's going to work somehow. 

Merkel specializes in uneasy compromises, but unlike her successes from last year -- the Greek bailout that kept the country within the euro zone and the improvised deal that stopped heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine -- this latest one is embarrassing. German-led Europe has professed to stand on values. Instead, it is turning away a relatively small number of people -- compared to its population -- and resolving to keep them out, whatever the dire outcomes for those seeking refuge.

Merkel may come out the winner politically: Soon, she will be able to tell jittery Germans that the refugee problem has been solved. Yet the attempt at moral leadership that Merkel made by opening Germany's doors -- and, her critics say,  creating the problem in the first place -- has fizzled, and that cannot but damage Merkel's long-term legacy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net