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In Turkey-E.U. tussle, millions of refugees in danger of being used as political collateral

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Stakes are set to be raised in the tense standoff between Turkey and the European Union with a proposed cut in funding to Turkey in preparation for the country to join the European Union. On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for the cuts in assistance to Turkey in what she described as “very negative” developments in Turkey. “The rule of law in Turkey is moving in the wrong direction,” said Merkel, in advance of next week’s vote on the funding cuts.

Since the thwarted July 2016 coup attempt, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been going through cycles of wide-ranging crackdowns that have seen thousands of public employees — including teachers, police officers, and judges — arrested. Journalists and political dissidents have also been arrested, among them a German reporter charged with having “ties” to a militant group.

Beyond the breakdown of civil society and the fragility of Turkey’s years-long campaign to get into the European Union, though, these tensions could alter the fate of the roughly 3 million migrants and refugees currently in Turkey, most of them hoping to get to Europe. In 2016, Turkey struck a deal with the European Union, in which Turkey agreed to tighten up security at the shores of the Aegean Sea, preventing human smugglers from taking refugees to Europe, in exchange for roughly $7 billion and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to E.U..

The deal was slammed by Amnesty International as Europe’s “year of shame” in the rights group’s update on the status of refugees in Turkey in March — the first anniversary of the agreement:

In Turkey, Syrian refugees receive temporary protection, but are left to fend for themselves. Turkey denies full refugee status to non-Europeans and the conditions in the country have shown it is unable to provide effective protection as required under international law. This means that the three million refugees in the country, virtually all of whom are non-European, have no way to be self-reliant. Struggling to meet people’s basic needs, the Turkish authorities are failing to ensure that refugees and asylum-seekers are able to live in dignity.

Gönül Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, told ThinkProgress that the real danger isn’t that Erdogan will simply allow more refugees into Europe, but that he will use them for short-term political gain for his re-election in 2019. “That is his last battle — he has to win that battle, and if he does, he’ll be unchecked. There will be no institution that will be able to check his power,” she said.

The desperation stems from the fact that “Erdogan’s hand is not as strong as it used to be,” said Tol. The war in Syria is winding down, and with it, the fear of a never-ending flow of refugees from the war-torn country to Europe. Potential E.U. funding cuts, in addition to the suspension in talks to expand or upgrade the customs union between Europe and Turkey (which will further hurt an already battered Turkish economy), will further put Erdogan’s back against the wall. As it stands, Erdogan promised citizenship to the nearly three million Syrian and Iraqi refugees in order to win their vote in 2019.

On the one hand, that sounds good (as citizenship rights and potential integration do), but on the other, the potential for even greater backlash against refugees in Turkey is significant. As it stands, Tol says Turkish media — almost entirely controlled by the government — has greatly downplayed such sentiment, with stories, such as the murder of a pregnant Syrian refugee woman in Tol’s hometown of Mersin last week, are either under-reported or entirely unreported.

“You see the violence and you see the backlash against the refugees on a daily basis,” said Tol. “And you don’t hear that in the news, because the message that the government is trying to convey is that [the Syrians] are our Muslim brothers and that they need our help…so that is the narrative,” she said.

There’s a great deal of “resentment” in some communities, especially those on the border between Turkey and Syria, against the refugees, over differences in culture and politics, and granting this population citizenship rights, en masse, is “really going to strengthen anti-refugee sentiment. But that’s all medium to long-term [thinking]. Right now, Erdogan’s only focus is 2019.”

“In the long run, this is going to be a major problem,” said Tol.

Another possibility is that while Erdogan won’t stop accepting Syrian refugees into Turkey if the E.U. cuts funding, he could allow them to cross the Aegean into Europe, said Elizabeth Collett, founding director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe.

“On a certain level, this [funding cut] is just symbolic,” Collett told ThinkProgress.

“This is just the E.U. saying it’s unacceptable to behave this way and expect to become an E.U member state. And it’s also a recognition that Turkey, financially, economically, is in a bit of trouble, so I think they’re hoping it will hurt a little. I don’t think there’s any expectation that Erdogan will switch course,” said Collett. “If it weren’t for the deal on refugees, you’d see the E.U. states being a lot more forthright on how they feel about Turkey and Erdogan’s actions at the moment.”

The refugee deal is something Erdogan wields over the E.U., and as Collett points out, he threatens to “tear it up” every other week, but is unlikely to.

“Erdogan is a capricious individual…but he’s interested in the money, because visa liberalization hasn’t moved anywhere and no other part of the deal has moved forward from his side,” said Collett.

Then there’s the issue of what kind of moral authority the E.U. has in judging Turkey to start with, especially when Italy, a member state, is paying Libyan militia to hold on to migrants and refugees in detention centers where they are vulnerable to abuse (according to NGOs and rights groups).

“A year ago, no official within the E.U. would have said it was acceptable to go into Libya. That was a red line,” said Collett. “But we blew through that red line in February of this year.” Collett added that while E.U. politicians like the fact that Erdogan, an unapologetic strongman, can make things happen, they are now forced to confront what it means to require Turkey to adopt “European values” at this point.

“It’s problematic because it is less clear now what ‘European values’ are within the E.U..,” she said, pointing to member states such as Hungary and Poland, which have engaged in crackdowns against rights groups and the press.

So is this the European Union growing up, or simply giving up?

“It’s difficult to see what’s happening,”said Collett, “because there are such strong interests that are so conflicting right now that have been catalyzed by this [refugee] crisis.”

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