Why Türkiye matters for Europe's migration challenges


While the European Union is poised for alteration, it becomes important more than ever to remember why Türkiye matters for Europe’s migration challenges. The EU needs a stable Türkiye. A country in severe economic and political conditions, lacking sufficient support for refugees and migrants, perfectly illustrates the push factors that drive further migration where the EU is a near destination. A stable Türkiye benefits the EU, the population in Türkiye, and the surrounding region. This cannot be achieved with unfair policies.

The European Union is on the brink of changes: the European Parliament elections will take place early June, and Hungary is set to take over the rotating EU Presidency in July. The European parliamentary elections are forecasted to result in a swing to the right, with populist radical-right parties increasing their votes and seats across the EU. Anti-EU forces seem to be gaining ground at a time when the Russia–Ukraine and Israel–Gaza conflicts continue. Within this context, Türkiye is not a topic of discussion. That’s why it has become more important than ever to engage European politicians by stressing Türkiye’s strategic importance in migration matters, advocating for its recognition and discussing the right forms of collaboration within European migration policies.

Europe witnessed a significant increase in irregular migration in 2023, reaching a total of approximately 380,000, and it is predicted that irregular migration will remain a significant challenge in 2024. In fact, the overall increase in 2023 was driven by African nationalities, which accounted for almost half. The volume of flows on the Turkish corridor of the Central Mediterranean route (Afghans, Iranians and Iraqis comprising the top nationalities) as well as the Western Balkan route (especially via Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Syrians, Turks and Afghans represent the top nationalities) decreased in 2023 compared with 2022. Still, there are many situations that remain a concern for European border management in 2024.

One concern should still be Türkiye. As of mid-March, Türkiye was hosting 3.1 million Syrians under a temporary protection regime – almost half of this population are below the age of 18. Based on figures published by the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA), Syrians still continued to file by far the highest number of asylum applications in January 2024, representing 15% of all applications lodged in the EU+. Thus, as long as the stalemate in Syria continues, Syrians will continue to be on the agenda, despite new conflicts such as Ukraine, Gaza or Sahel.

Türkiye is not only hosting Syrians. Since 2020, it has been receiving approximately 20,000 to 30,000 applications for international protection every year – making it into the list of top 10 countries of international protection applications in Europe. The top three nationalities applying for international protection in 2023 were from Afghanistan, Ukraine and Iraq. Moreover, in only the first three months of 2024, more than 40,000 irregular migrants were apprehended in the country – Afghans, Syrians and Palestinians were among the top five nationalities. Thus, Türkiye is accommodating large numbers of refugees and irregular migrants, and we do not know how many have the intention to seek a new life in Europe.

Whether we like it or not, Türkiye still serves as a significant transit country for migration flows towards Europe. Given the above-mentioned numbers of refugees and irregular migrants in Türkiye, its policies and stability have direct consequences for migration to Europe. An unstable country with dire circumstances, and without adequate support for refugees and migrants, is just an ideal case of displaying push factors for further migration. And Europe is an immediate destination. Türkiye is an important actor for geopolitical stability and security of the EU, and it is in the interest of the EU to improve living conditions for refugees and migrants, by providing access to education and health, and supporting integration efforts. There is also a need to change the perception – the engagement with Türkiye should not solely focus on creating the right conditions to prevent people from coming to Europe. The path of cooperation should equally encompass the embrace of a paradigm shift towards sharing of responsibility, exemplified, for instance, through the facilitation of resettlement in Europe, all in the pursuit of safeguarding those in need of international protection.

Moreover, the challenge  in Türkiye is not only about material benefits for the refugees and migrants, but also about the overall economic situation of the entire population. The official annual inflation rate reached 67% last month. Many believe that the actual rate is twice as high. According to data from the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK), while 103,613 Turkish citizens left the country in 2021, this number rose to 139,531 in 2022. The largest group among those leaving were individuals aged 25–29.

Is it only the economy, stupid? No. It is also important to engage the Turkish state to ensure that people in its territory are treated according to international standards with a commitment to human rights. An upcoming report, to be published by the Association for Migration Research (GAR), on the situation of migrants in Istanbul describes how the Turkish state’s tightening of inspections, deportation of those apprehended and the closure of some neighbourhoods to registration have had many negative effects on the lives of migrants, especially Syrians. The main one is the fear and anxiety created by the inspections and the risk of deportation, which has led to migrants being less likely to appear in public spaces and their presence in the city becoming invisible. Those migrants who are completely undocumented or Syrian asylum-seekers who do not have temporary protection registrations in Istanbul are confined to their homes, afraid to go out and therefore unable even to go to work. The report stated that this situation causes migrants to be isolated from social and economic life, and that the tensions created by this situation can turn into an additional difficulty that migrant families, especially women, face with regard to domestic violence. Those Syrians who come to Istanbul to work, even though they are registered in other provinces, cannot enrol their children in school or receive health services because they turn into irregular migrants. The break-up of families, especially when male migrants are caught and put in removal centres or deported directly, means the deportation of the family breadwinner leaves mothers and children unprotected and creates financial desperation and a serious social problem for those left behind.

The citizens of Türkiye are not immune to these dire conditions either. In the autumn of 2023, Turkish nationals sought protection in the EU+ in unprecedented numbers.With the economic and political situation getting worse, regardless of whether one has the status of a citizen, a foreigner, a refugee, a temporary protection holder, an asylum seeker, an irregular or a regular migrant, many have the intention to leave Türkiye. The EU needs a Türkiye ‘with stable political institutions and the guarantee of human rights and the rule of law’, as well as ‘economic stability and the existence of a robust market’. Rings a bell? Yes, these are the Copenhagen criteria! The EU has to change its signals. A mere partnership and cooperation agreement with Türkiye will not facilitate the necessary reforms in the country. There is a need to get back to the accession table.

The current EU–Türkiye relations have been downgraded to a transactional relationship solely based on managing migration. Even this is going wrong. Recently, on 18 March, the anniversary of the 2016 EU–Türkiye Statement gave many critics an opportunity to restate their positions. This statement is condemned for being treated as an international convention, despite the fact that it does not have a legal character and is not legally binding, which leads to a problem with regard to lack of transparency, clarity and auditability. This is indeed a deal that does not bring a permanent solution to the refugee crisis, but just provides a temporary relief for EU states, while also creating an unfair situation for both Turkish society, which has accepted millions of asylum seekers, and for the asylum seekers requesting a permanent solution.

The only positive side of the statement seems to be the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey (FRIT), which is an additional fund of €6 billion to support refugees in the country and has been mobilized in two tranches. The projects funded under FRIT are ending. In a meeting, a Turkish official resembled FRIT to Belgian fries: it stuffs, but it does not fill you up. In fact, we do not even know if it stuffs. This is due to a lack of transparency on two levels: first, we do not know the actual cost of hosting refugees in Türkiye, as the government is very enigmatic about public expenditure; and second, we do not know how much of the funding received for the projects is actually being spent on the refugees – the administrative costs of projects can sometimes be the largest chunk of the budgets, and thus FRIT projects are criticized for creating an ecosystem of their own. Still, FRIT is better than nothing. It is not the epitome of responsibility sharing, but rather, shifting.

So, what is next? Should we get rid of the deal altogether? No. As we stated elsewhere, the EU and Türkiye should sit at the table and convey a more equitable responsibility-sharing model that: takes into account the concerns of both Turkish society and asylum seekers; that is in line with international human rights and refugee law; that is negotiated in a transparent and democratic environment; that is open to judicial review; that effectively focuses not only on financial responsibility sharing but also on physical responsibility sharing; and that sensitively maintains the balance between freedom and security. In the long run, all sides will benefit.


The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.

This article first appeared here: eu.boell.org