How Coronavirus Changes the Dynamics of Refugee Issue Between Turkey and Europe

As European borders shut down one after another due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the nature of the refugee issue between Ankara and Brussels has dramatically altered.

Abdullah Ayasun
May 13, 2020 · 7 min read
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Refugees at the Turkish-Greek border in early March. (Photo Credit: AFP)

Ankara’s gamble to amass a small number of refugees at the land border between Turkey and Greece in early March has spectacularly backfired. Not because the E.U. this time caught Turkey’s bluff or withstood its ground against the Turkish strongman without any shivering, but because there was an unexpected dynamic that unprecedentedly altered the entire equation between Ankara and Brussels: the coronavirus pandemic.

The introduction of almighty COVID-19 to the European landscape has dramatically redefined the geographical identity of the Union for the first time in the past half-century. And Turkey’s usual threat to play refugees as a geopolitical card against the E.U. on this occasion proved an empty shell after a succession of border closures among member states. Even if the Greek government buckled in the face of Turkey’s brinkmanship and opened its borders this March, the prospect of further advance of the refugees had no longer been possible by the existence of continent-wide border shutdowns. A month later, the Turkish authorities emptied the makeshift camps set up by refugees at the border, and placed them in an enforced quarantine for 14 days. After then, the exhausted refugees, resigned to their misfortune, quietly packed their stuff and returned back to the Turkish cities, where a national regime of lockdown was placed (before the partial reopening this week), to a varying degree of success and efficiency.

Extrapolating from its global consequences, there is an emerging consensus among foreign policy experts that international politics and world geopolitics will not remain the same after the wind-down of this latest pandemic. But what kind of a new global order would emerge is still a matter of ongoing debate. Yet, it is safe to surmise that the very physical impact of the COVID-19 deprives some autocrat regimes of their vested tools to be deployed in the service of national interest.

For Erdogan’s Turkey, the refugee card, shrewdly and cunningly used against Europe several times in the past five years, is no longer a plausible option to invoke. A recent survey even suggests that the era-defining and earth-shattering scale of the pandemic would nudge Ankara into the E.U. orbit in a quest for financial help to restart its bruised economy once the national lockdown is over. This, the study contends, would at least partially lead to a democratization of some sorts, if the E.U. astutely uses its economic leverage to demand reforms regarding the rule of law and liberties before lending any financial support. But how that “big if” part would ever materialize is as elusive as a matter can be.

Pandemic Inflicts Heavy Blow to Syrian Refugees

Even well before the drama played out at the Turkish-Greek border, the social and economic burden of hosting so many refugees (nearly 4 million) had already animated an increasing anti-refugee sentiment, with direct political ramifications for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its decaying popularity. It would not be entirely wrong to claim that the refugee issue played a pivotal role in swaying voters’ choices in the 2019 local elections where Erdogan’s party lost major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, for the first time in the past 25 years. The municipal elections were regarded to be a referendum on the government’s general profile and political fortunes. No wonder why the ruling party felt impelled to re-adjust its pro-refugee policy, scrambling to navigate its commitment to the care of helpless people without entirely alienating large segments of its voters. But that balancing act is no longer tenable given the country’s flagging economy hit hard by the pandemic.

The large-scale shutdown of the economy during the partial national lockdown has turned people’s previous social benevolence into an unconcealed hostile attitude toward the refugees as the government struggled to extend its largesse partially reserved for the refugees towards its own citizens. The access of refugees to help both at the local and national levels has consequentially become more difficult. The coronavirus has, in this respect, laid bare the limits of the government’s magnanimity and its ever-shrinking resources for indefinitely playing the role of a do-gooder.

In a Zoom meeting jointly held by the Washington-based Middle East Institute and Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Poland on Thursday last week, panelists discussed the migration trends in Europe during the COVID-19 crisis.

Gonul Tol from the Middle East Institute highlighted the challenges endured by the refugees in Turkey, noting that most of the refugees are left on their own. As part of the deal between Turkey and E.U., “at least 1.7 million refugees have debit cards, using E.U. funds” for their livelihood. But the rest of the refugees do not have access to this kind of financial assistance and “need to work as undocumented workers with minimum wages” without any social benefits attached to it. Yet, with the shutdown of many sectors where many refugees clandestinely worked, this option also became out of reach for Syrians. As Economist and other media outlets documented, the refugees were the first ones to be hit hard by the mass lay-offs.

No less tormenting for Syrians is the existence of a legal imbroglio that has forever haunted them in a country where they settled in huge numbers more than anywhere else. Refugees from the regional countries, who ended up in Turkey before making to another country, are perennially in a state of legal limbo given the reluctance of the Turkish authorities to recognize them as refugees. Instead, Ankara only registered them as “temporary guests,” a legally ambiguous grey zone that deprives the Syrians of the rights protected by international laws regulating refugee rights across the world.

Tol also touched the prospect of virus contraction and spreading for refugees who work in rural areas as seasonal agricultural workers. In conditions which hardly could be described as hygienic and ideal, refugees huddled in cramped tents or other facilities designed only for a small number of tenants.

The access to education emerges as another predicament, not just for the refugee children but for the entire country as well. With the temporary closure of schools, Tol added, 700,000 refugee children have been affected by this measure.

Turkey’s Hand Weaker Against Europe

The most important and immediate impact of the coronavirus was that Turkey’s hand vis-à-vis Europe became weaker than it was before.

The study mentioned in the introduction part of the article emphasizes how the latest pandemic suspended, if not entirely upended, Ankara’s most useful source of tool for (occasional) deployment against the E.U. Written by a number of Turkish and Dutch scholars for Dutch-based Clingendael (The Netherlands Institute of International Relations), the report articulates a road map for the E.U. to maximize its leverage to demand certain reforms from Ankara with regard to improving its dismal record on democracy and human rights. The report argues as follows:

Ankara, the scholars conclude, “could profit handsomely from its low wages and proximity to Europe.”

For all its promising aspects, the suggestion is not without a caveat. “Such initiatives,” the scholars assert in the report’s concluding section relating to Turkey and E.U., “require a kind of rethinking, policy reorientation and resource re-allocation that is scarce in times of crisis.”


Still, any final conclusion that coronavirus deprived Turkey of the refugee card once and for all would be premature and misplaced. As the country moved to ease its lockdown in a partial manner, starting this Monday, the restrictions for human mobility would eventually be removed in the weeks to come. Given the fact that the struggling contours of the economy would likely remain as a thorn on the side of government for a while until a full-scale recovery, the Turkish authorities would be mulling to pressure Europe for additional financial assistance to be channeled to refugees.

It is no secret that mutual trust between sides is in short supply. The Greek media already published what seemed to be uncorroborated stories about Turkey’s intention to dispatch Covid-infected refugees to Europe through the Greek border during the peak of the refugee crisis in early April. Yet, none of those inflated fears ever materialized as the latest conflict was resolved, not after a mutual agreement between Turkey and Greece or Ankara and Brussels, but by the unexpected intervention of a natural element that proved to be game-changer beyond anyone’s guess.

As this author and a Greek colleague emphasized in a joint article published in March, as long as the Idlib conflict remains unresolved and a million more internally-displaced people are left to their fate (with little access to most basic services) in the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border, the refugee issue will not peacefully slip into oblivion. It will remain with us, no matter how coronavirus has reduced the movement of migrants (almost 90 percent) across the European borders and no matter how the virus has changed the geopolitical dynamics between Turkey and the E.U. for the moment.

The prognosis, while not entirely doomed, is hardly promising. To tackle it, an update of the 2016 deal would seriously be considered with a comprehensive approach to make up for the flaws and deficiencies that frequently test the durability of the first deal. The matter of refugees would, after all, outlast the longevity of the coronavirus. The longer authorities, either in Ankara or Brussels, refuse to face that reality in a mutual manner, the more painful the reckoning would be when the issue haunts Turkey and Europe once again.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse.

Abdullah Ayasun

Written by

Virginia-based journalist and writer. Politics, culture, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, the MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Abdullah Ayasun

Written by

Virginia-based journalist and writer. Politics, culture, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, the MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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