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Idlib, coronavirus make EU refugee crisis a perfect storm

Migrants packed into a buffer zone at the Turkey-Greece border. (AFP)
Migrants packed into a buffer zone at the Turkey-Greece border. (AFP)
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13 Mar 2020 04:03:54 GMT9
13 Mar 2020 04:03:54 GMT9

The gruesome scenes that took place on the Turkish-Greek border last weekend made headlines throughout continental Europe. Countless refugees were left stranded in a no man’s land. By Wednesday, those pictures had to make room for the ever more precarious situation surrounding COVID-19. Italy is in lockdown, borders are sealed and, from Friday, flights from Schengen zone countries to the US will be banned.

This does not mean that the situation on Turkey’s border with Greece has improved in any way, shape or form. Two weeks back, the Turkish government announced that it would open its western border, resulting in thousands of refugees moving toward Greece from all parts of Turkey. Greece felt unable to cope, so it refused to allow entry to any refugees and temporarily suspended asylum applications.

The EU, while outraged over Turkey’s apparent suspension of the refugee deal of 2016, was divided internally as to how to react to the situation unfolding on its southeastern flank. There were harsh words for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who argued that he had not received the full €6 billion ($6.7 billion) he had been promised. To be fair, Turkey is housing close to 4 million Syrian refugees — more than any other country — with another million queuing up in Idlib to cross the border from Syria. Turkey does need help, but using refugees as pawns will not achieve anything with the European leaders.

Germany was skittish. For one, Angela Merkel’s decision to let a million refugees into the country in 2015 /2016 undermined her power base and changed German politics for good. It is also only a matter of time until Merkel stands down. France is hesitant too, which is underlined by President Emmanuel Macron’s geopolitical concerns over Turkish influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. France has agreements with Greece and Cyprus, and Macron received Libyan strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar in the Elysee Palace earlier this week. Turkey supports the opposing side of Fayez Al-Sarraj, offering military intelligence, troops and arms.

Turkey does need help, but using refugees as pawns will not achieve anything with the European leaders.

Cornelia Meyer

On Monday, Erdogan visited Brussels for consultations with both the EU and NATO (Turkey is a member of the latter). It is unusual for a head of state to visit international organizations without an invitation. Erdogan may have thought that needs must, as he finds himself in a predicament with regards to ever more refugees coming to his country’s borders and Turkey lacking an escape valve. The reception at EU headquarters was frosty to say the least. Merkel, in particular, admonished him for “weaponizing” refugees. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made it quite clear that Erdogan should not hold his breath for support from the organization on Idlib. Tensions between Turkey and NATO have been on the rise ever since Ankara started to “flirt” with Moscow, culminating in it ordering Russia’s S-400 air defense system. But Russia and Turkey are on opposite sides in Syria. They may have agreed on a cease-fire in Idlib last weekend, but that is a tenuous and porous agreement.

So, what now? Europe is in thrall to the coronavirus. Italy, one of its weakest economies, is in lockdown. The situation is escalating in Germany, France and Austria. It is impossible for Greece’s economy to handle the barrage of refugees, even if the government was admonished by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for its month-long suspension of asylum applications.

What makes things even harder is that the EU did not use the relative calm on its borders between 2016 and 2019 to decide on an equitable distribution mechanism for refugees. To date, refugees have to be accommodated by the countries where they are first registered. This puts an inordinate burden on the bloc’s economically weaker southern periphery.

At the beginning of the week, there were some green shoots of cooperation. Germany agreed to take in 1,500 vulnerable unaccompanied children. France, Portugal, Luxembourg and Finland also agreed to take similar measures. But this is a drop in the ocean when faced with a tidal wave of humanity waiting at Europe’s borders.

To make matters worse, the free movement of people has been severely impeded by the spread of COVID-19. Europe’s economy is expected to shrink in the first two quarters. It may grow by 0.1 percent by the end of the year, but this is looking increasingly optimistic.

Countries tend to be more generous the more affluent they are. When the going gets tough, purse strings will be tightened and borders closed. The weakening economic situation and the refugee “threat” plays into the hands of far-right movements all over the continent.

The battle for Idlib has brought the refugee crisis to a new boiling point. When coupled with the economic and psychological impact of COVID-19, we have a perfect storm.

Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources

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