EU-Turkey Deal: Background, Content, Implementation and the Future of the Deal

Turkey’s Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu shakes hands with President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, and President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, after a press conference to discuss the migrant deal reached between Turkey and EU states, during a two-day EU summit, on March 18, 2016, in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo: EC – Audioservice)


The political instabilities and turmoil following the Arab Spring have definitely affected the migration discussions in the world. The outbreak of the Syrian Civil War heightened the intensity of the cross-border population movement. People escaping from the clashes started to move towards the neighboring countries where they could continue their lives in safety. The number of refugees fleeing Syria since 2011 has reached 5.6 million.[i] Turkey has hosted the largest number of these refugees by admitting 3.9 million Syrian refugees in addition to almost 400.000 non-Syrians.[ii] Angela Merkel implied that Germany and the other EU countries could manage to host nearly 1 million Syrian refugees.[iii]

It was seen as a generous invitation and like Turkey, the EU countries have received large-scale migration inflows most particularly from Syria through Mediterranean routes. 2015 was the zenith of the migration movement when more than 1 million people fled to Europe, initially through Greece and Italy. The overwhelming majority of these people crossed from Turkey to Greece by risking their lives on a very dangerous route operated by human smugglers. During this perilous journey, 3.771 people lost their lives.[iv] According to several studies, the majority of the nationalities crossing the Aegean Sea in 2015 were Syrians (%57). Following Syrians, Afghans (22%) and Iraqis (5%) came in second and third position.[v]

Large-scale population movements towards the continent have had important repercussions for the EU itself and the member countries domestically. While far-right parties gained ground in domestic politics of the member states, at the European Parliament euro-sceptic and anti-migration movements increased their strength.[vi] Even during the Brexit referendum, the Leave campaign exploited the conspiracies related to migration. At the EU level, even the validity of the Schengen area was put into question. Syrian refugees who were mostly trying to reach Germany were perceived by certain states as threats to public order and security. The EU member states called on help from Turkey to restrain refugees from crossing into Europe.


Content and Shortcomings in the Implementation of the Deal

Facing one of the most serious challenges in its history, on 18th March 2016, the EU reached a deal aimed at closer cooperation between the Turkish government and the EU in terms of management of the mass movement. It also seeks to stop the mass movement of refugees and irregular migrants to Europe and intends to prevent losing their lives while crossing. This deal had a leverage effect in the reregulation of relations between Turkey and the EU states in the area of migration. It did not merely comprise of migration issues, but also contained relational gestures towards Turkey, such as visa liberalization and the revitalization of EU accession talks(see Articles 5, 7, and 8).[vii] The deal pledged 6 billion Euros, funded from EU states and institutions to improve the humanitarian situation, with pledges for more along the way, fulfilled in 2018 (see Article 6). This aid fund was sent out to Turkey as projects are developed through the Facility for Refugees in Turkey (FRIT). As the projects are approved, the committed amount is paid. However, 1.5 billion euros of the aid for Syrians has not been given on the grounds that there was no project.[viii]

According to the deal, in exchange for each Syrian refugee being returned to Turkey, one Syrian under temporary protection who is registered in Turkey would be admitted to the EU considering the UN Vulnerability Criteria. Therefore, the deal in its core is characterized as a swap policy by many experts.

The deal regarding swap mechanism had disastrous effects on refugees and could be argued that it violated international law and norms, in that it basically locked refugees into a limbo status on the Greek Islands.[ix] It could have caused Greece to seriously violate international refugee law. However, it was successful in the fact that it did result in dramatically reducing the number of irregular migrants crossing the Aegean. EU member states have essentially left Greece alone, and have done very little to improve the poor conditions refugees live in there, perhaps with the aim to deter other refugees from making the unauthorized journey.

Germany and Sweden accepted nearly 1.5 million, but some EU countries have been reluctant to take even a few hundred refugees, whereas Turkey has continued to fulfill its role in hosting many millions of Syrians. Additionally, the article about the visa liberalization process of the deal was put on hold, with the EU criticizing the Turkish government’s military involvement in Syria and its crackdown post-2016 coup attempt. It has been promised that the visa exemption will begin. However, contrary to the promise of political power, this right could not be obtained in the past four years, and the visa requirements have become strict. The visa application fee, which was 60 Euros, was increased to 80 Euros as of February 2, 2020, by the EU Council.[x] For EU member states, the benefits of the deal were that it externalized their borders and reduced the numbers of refugees that would be able to arrive in their countries. The attitude of Europe was to create security rings around itself in the sense to use Turkey as a buffer in which to remotely halt and control immigration.[xi]


Suggestions for the Future

In order to ensure a more adequate EU-Turkey deal in the future, the European member states must be willing to shoulder more responsibility in terms of sharing refugee protection, rather than solely shifting this to other states. This responsibility goes beyond subsidizing the burden with monetary assistance, but a re-evaluation of policies. Beyond the existing deal, the EU must take steps toward reforming the current asylum system so that it guarantees the basic rights of refugees.

The EU asylum procedures must be based on the rights of refugees as put forward by the 1951 Refugee Convention, not on the mechanisms of a deal, with a logic of deportation and resettlement.

In terms of burden sharing, The EU has suffered since the 90s. It is important to note in this discussion that the term is anything but neutral and assumes that refugees are a negative burden rather than a potential resource. The EU must re-envision burden-sharing via increasing incentives for member states to share the protection costs and responsibilities. This may look like rebalancing financing, or the physical redistribution of refugees to resettle them from countries of first arrival to other member states and addressing disparities in the quality of protection offered among EU countries including Greece and the Balkans.[xii]

In regard to Turkey, the political relationship has been strained, and therefore, moving forward, the EU and Turkey may find it more beneficial to abandon the political gestures to another arena, and instead focus solely on a deal to support refugees in Turkey. This may look like the EU offering support to Turkey’s border control and management. As Chlad argued that the EU and Turkey must also work together to critically assess the parts of the deal that have been successful, such as long-term projects supporting health and education.[xiii] However, there are lingering questions that have not been addressed adequately, such as the language of education for Syrian students, and Syrian refugees working without work permits.

Another weakness of the current deal is that it only addresses Syrian refugees on Turkish soil, disregarding the hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi irregular migrants that live within Turkey, and who also make the dangerous journey into Europe. The EU should also consider the needs of non-Syrian irregular migrants and encourage organizations that have already been helping Syrians to address their needs. In the interim, there is a rising concern of refoulement of Syrians where security, volunteering, and continuity are the basic concerns. If these conditions are met, policies towards returning can be implemented. For the rest, integration efforts should be accelerated by considering the burden-sharing policies in cooperation with the EU. Thus, people of different races, cultures, and social backgrounds will be able to live together in peace without human rights violations.


İpek Çakar is a Master’s student in the Department of International Relations at METU. She graduated from Bilkent University in 2020 with a B.A degree in Economics. She has expertise in research projects covering issues on macroeconomic data analysis, integration of refugees into the labor market, and data collection and processing. She also took part in various interdisciplinary projects and voluntary activities related to refugees and migrants. She is a member of METUMIR and has the coordinator role for academic events. She is focusing on quantitative data analysis within forced migration studies in her postgraduate research.

Lara Schroeter

Volkan Özkan

Publication Date: 26/03/2021


[i] UNHCR Official Figures, 2020. Syria emergency, (last visited 19 January 2021).

[ii] IOM Turkey, 2020. Migration in Turkey, (last visited 19 January 2021).

[iii] On August 31, 2015 German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared “Wir schaffen das” or “We can do this”. (last visited 19 January 2021).

[iv] IOM Press Releases. Migrant Fatalities in Mediterranean in 2015. (last visited 2 February 2021).

[v] Clare C, Pacitto J, Lauro D, Forest M (2015), Why people move: understanding the drivers and trends of migration to Europe, Overseas Development Institute Working Paper 430, December 2015.

[vi] Davis, L., & Deole, S. S. (2017). Immigration and the rise of far-right parties in Europe. ifo DICE Report, 15(4), 10-15.

[vii] EU-Turkey Deal: (last visited 19 January 2021).

[viii] Makdisi, K., et al. (2018). Exploring Refugee Movements in the Middle East Regional Context: Responses to the Syrian Crisis in Lebanon and Turkey. MENARA Working Papers, No. 28. December 2018.

[ix] Alfred, C., Howden, D., Expert Views: The E.U. Turkey Deal After Two Years

views-the-e-u-turkey-deal-after-two-years (last visited 19 January 2021).

[x] Schengen Visa Code Amendments adopted by EU Council: (last visited: 2 February 2021).

[xi] Dinçer, O. B., Federici, V., Ferris, E., Karaca, S., Kirişci, K., & Çarmıklı, E. Ö. (2013). Turkey and Syrian refugees: The limits of hospitality. International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

[xii] Pastore, F. ed. (2017). Beyond the Migration and Asylum Crisis. Aspen Institute Italia.

[xiii] IGAM Joint Panel, Civil Society Refugee Response in Turkey amid COVID-19 (Video). Youtube. December 10, 2020. (last visited 19 January 2021).