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The EU-Turkey Agreement: Erecting Barriers on Our Borders and in Our Minds

Hanya Riedl wrote “The EU-Turkey Agreement: Erecting Barriers on Our Borders and in Our Minds” as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.


To “replace disorganised, chaotic, irregular and dangerous migratory flows by organised, safe and legal pathways to Europe” is the declared goal of the EU-Turkey Agreement (1).  Paradoxically, one of the core provisions of the Agreement requires that those who had previously arrived in Greece, safely and legally, must be deported. Surely, such deportations contradict rather than support the goal of creating pathways to Europe. Given this apparent discrepancy, how is the deportation of these people nevertheless considered an appropriate measure? 

To better understand why a policy of deportation is part of the Agreement, one must be familiar with the logic of deterrence and the assumptions underlying it. This is a logic worth deconstructing, because it erects barriers, not only on our borders, but also in our minds. In the case of the Agreement, the logic of deterrence constructs a narrative that helps to justify deportations. Deterrence logic leads us to think that migration is illegitimate, that migrant and asylum-seeking persons are a homogenous group that deserves to be deterred, and that Europeans are entitled to decide what is best for them. If we uncritically adopt these assumptions, deportations appear to be an appropriate or even a necessary measure. 

The Logic of Deterrence 

The Agreement was concluded in March 2016 as a reaction to the so-called “European migration crisis,” which saw an unprecedented arrival of asylum-seeking persons in Europe and an overwhelmed European asylum system (2).  According to the Agreement, all persons arriving in Greece from Turkey should be deported and for each Syrian among those persons, one Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the European Union (EU). Rather than replacing a ‘dangerous’ with a ‘safe’ pathway, the Agreement, thus, appears to aim at closing the pathway across the Aegean Sea completely, leaving only the much narrower pathway of resettlement, which is open exclusively to a specific quota of Syrian nationals. In order to stop crossings of the Aegean Sea, the EU detains individuals in Greece under the threat of deportation, seemingly irrespective of their need for international protection due to the designation of Turkey as a ‘safe’ country. This threat with the intent to dissuade certain behavior is an essential part of deterrence logic. 

Generally speaking, deterrence can be described as the attempt to influence someone’s decision-making by employing means that instill fear in that person. It is a concept that is commonly referenced, and also criticized, in the context of crime prevention, where punishment is intended to deter criminal behavior, and of national defense, where military buildup is supposed to discourage attacks or even war. It is striking then that deterrence is also used in the context of migration. And yet, deterrence logic is inherent in many migration policies all over the world. 

The Agreement was preceded by several other deterrence policies in Europe. Hungary, for example, erected razor-wire fences along its borders with Serbia and Croatia. Austria also erected fences and introduced controls, notably on its borders with member states of the Schengen Area. Denmark allowed police to search and seize assets from asylum-seeking persons. Moreover, politicians in several EU states publicly rejected the reception of Muslim refugees. All these measures and actions, be they physical or procedural, are deterrence policies and intend to scare and to prevent refugees from coming. Not surprisingly then, the specific deterrence measures of detention and deportation in Greece and Turkey in the Agreement are not new. People are often systematically detained or accommodated under precarious conditions, while their claims for asylum are being processed. Until its deletion in 2013, a German law prescribed that asylum-seeking persons should be living under conditions that would render them “willing to return to their country of origin.”(3)  Deportation is also very common as a deterrence policy and it is particularly concerning that those with refugee status face a threat of deportation.

Since its implementation in March 2016, much attention has been given to assessing the Agreement’s legality, effectiveness, and stability. Serious concerns have been raised regarding compliance with international refugee and human rights law, in particular the assumption that Turkey is a ‘safe country’ for refugees and that it can provide an adequate level of protection to them. In viewing the unaddressed root causes and the changing migration routes, the effectiveness of the Agreement has been called into question. Moreover, recent tensions between the EU and Turkey raise doubts that the agreed upon conditions for the maintenance of the Agreement will be met. 

While these are important facets of the Agreement, too little attention has been dedicated to scrutinize the Agreement’s reliance on the logic of deterrence. Over one year after the Agreement’s conclusion, it is important to carefully investigate the assumptions underlying and the conclusions resulting from the logic of deterrence and, in particular, to raise awareness about the effects it could have on our thinking about migration more generally. How does the logic of deterrence, as the rationale of the Agreement, frame the general phenomenon of migration? How does it portray individuals who attempt to cross the Aegean Sea? And what role does the logic of deterrence attribute to Europeans? 

The Illegitimacy of Leaving for Europe

In the case of the Agreement, the allegedly wrongful conduct is the attempt to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. As a major press release of the European Commission explains, “EU Heads of State or Government and Turkey agreed […] to replace disorganised, chaotic, irregular and dangerous migratory flows by organised, safe and legal pathways to Europe.”(4)  Taking this statement at face value illustrates how migration is framed pursuant to the logic of deterrence. First, the four negatively connoted adjectives ‘disorganised, chaotic, irregular and dangerous’ portray people’s decisions to cross the Aegean Sea as problematic. Second, by contrasting this alleged problem with a supposedly ‘organised, safe and legal’ solution, the statement insinuates that the current migratory flows are not only disorganised and dangerous, but also illegal. 

Contrary to what the Agreement suggests, however, the crossing of the Aegean Sea to seek asylum is not per se illegal. On the contrary, a right to seek asylum is enshrined in Article 18 of the European Charter on Fundamental Rights and the punishment of irregular entry or presence to seek asylum is, in principle, prohibited by the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The ominous term ‘irregular’ in the immigration context is a term without a specific legal meaning. It has come to refer to the fact that a person does not have the required travel authorization to enter the country, but it does not necessarily include what is considered “illegal immigration” such as smuggling or trafficking (5).  

Unfortunately, a perceived wrongfulness of the targeted behavior is an essential part of policies that are based on the logic of deterrence. The wrongfulness justifies that deterrence measures can be used in the first place. If there were no wrong to be corrected, interference by any state, especially through such drastic measures as detention or deportation, would seem disproportionate. The European Commission explains that it introduced what it refers to as “returns [of persons] from the Greek islands to Turkey to make clear that this is a dangerous route and the wrong route.”(6)  On the basis of the Agreement, even people who would be granted refugee status by EU member states are, thus, returned to Turkey, if the authorities decide that the country is safe for them. This has the consequence that not only the attempt, but also the feat of reaching Europe is presented as illegitimate. 

Presenting this route as ‘wrong’ obscures and ignores the reasons why so many individuals put their lives at risk in the attempt to reach Europe. The logic of deterrence does not leave room to question why a certain behavior is wrong. It does not encourage us to ask why such great numbers of individuals feel compelled to leave their family behind. It does not force us to put ourselves in the shoes of other persons. It does not question what reasons would be legitimate or illegitimate and who should and could decide about their legitimacy. All these considerations are silenced when following the logic of deterrence. Accepting the logic of deterrence, thus, leaves us convinced the decision to cross the Aegean Sea is illegitimate and that the only legitimate migration to the EU is the narrow path of being chosen for resettlement.

Turning a Blind Eye to Individuals

The logic of deterrence may not only lead us to think of a certain conduct as inherently wrong, but it also portrays asylum-seeking and migrating persons as one homogenous group, which is defined by this wrongful conduct. This observation does not come as a surprise. The logic is familiar to the criminalization of conduct, which paves the way for labeling persons as ‘criminals’ – a label that can stick with them for a lifetime and that can change the way they are treated by society. The casting of ‘irregular migration’ as a problem and as wrong has a similar effect. It gives rise to the label of ‘irregular migrants,’ to describe those who are the alleged wrongdoers and supposedly the source of the problem. By ignoring the agency and diversity of all the individuals who are subsumed under this label, it creates a presumption of culpability of all those who cross the Aegean Sea ‘irregularly.’

According to the logic of deterrence, once the wrongful behavior and the culprits have been identified, measures should be taken to effectively discourage such behavior by penalizing those who committed the wrong. “All new irregular migrants or asylum seekers whose applications have been declared inadmissible […] will be returned to Turkey,” explains the European Commission (7).  Because the Agreement is based on the assumption that the ‘irregular’ crossing of the Aegean Sea is wrong, it logically follows that its deterrence measures target all those who crossed ‘irregularly.’ The Agreement, thus, effectively allows the deportation of all individuals, except those who it considers would be unsafe in Turkey (8).   It foresees a penalty for nearly everyone who is crossing the Aegean Sea, regardless of their need for international protection. 

These measures also apply to all those who would be granted refugee status and would be allowed to stay, if they had arrived, for example, in Italy instead of in Greece. In other words, even those whose reasons for flight are legally recognized as legitimate are deported to Turkey. More specifically, the Council of the European Union has declared, regarding the resettlement of Syrians from Turkey to the EU, that “priority is given to migrants who have not previously entered or tried to enter the EU irregularly.” (9)  The logic of deterrence, thus, leads the European Commission to make distinctions or even a hierarchy among those who are found to be in need of international protection.

Worse still, the Agreement’s deterrence measures arguably portray migrating and asylum-seeking persons as attempting to take advantage of Europeans. In the words of the European Commission, the Agreement “removes the incentive to seek irregular routes to the EU.” (10)  The statement presumes that irregular routes are attractive pathways to Europe and posits that reaching Europe is the main goal for those crossing the Aegean Sea. It, thus, starkly simplifies the reality and dismisses alternative explanations. This depiction of the situation falls short of grasping the complexity of the causes and the goals of migration. In the absence of available legal routes to Europe, migrating and asylum-seeking persons have very few options aside from ‘irregular migration’ to come to Europe. Family reunification, the possibility to legally bring one’s family into the country of asylum, has been drastically limited. Airplane carriers face drastic fines for transporting persons without valid travel authorizations. For many, irregular migration is thus the only remaining option.

Moreover, reaching the EU might not in and of itself be the goal. What the Agreement disapprovingly refers to as ‘incentive’ to come to Europe, might in fact be the desire and need for protection. Europe might be perceived as a safe haven for freedom of speech, security, freedom from persecution, financial stability, and much more. Yet, the Agreement does not mention or address underlying push factors of migration. Instead, its underlying logic of deterrence encourages the European public to think of migrating and asylum-seeking persons as illegitimate intruders. The fact that the European Commission considers the “possibility to detain asylum-seekers and irregular migrants, in particular if there is a risk of absconding,” encourages Europeans’ suspicion and resentment towards them. (11)   Overall, the logic of deterrence, thus, makes us blind to the humanity of the persons for whom the Agreement has a tangible meaning and real consequences. 

Humanitarianism As A Disguise

Aside from the wrongful act of ‘irregular migration’ and the need to penalize the wrongdoers, the Council of the European Union brings forward another justification for its deterrence policy: the supposedly humanitarian nature of the Agreement. The return of all ‘irregular migrants’ “will be a temporary and extraordinary measure,” it explains, “which is necessary to end the human suffering and restore public order.” (12)  It seems paradoxical that the same body that so forcefully rejects ‘irregular migrants’ presents itself as their savior. Yet, a European domestic audience, to whom this statement is likely addressed, might feel reassured by this assertion of a moral high ground and control. 

Such a cloak of humanitarianism serves not only as a justification for deterrence policies, but also functions as a shield from critical questions. European constituencies are told to conceive of the EU’s actions as sacrifices based in the goodness of their countries. As the European Commission explains, resettlements of Syrians from Turkey to Europe were introduced “to underline that this is how Europe lives up to its responsibilities as a continent committed to providing protection to those in need, as well as the Geneva Convention and to the fundamental right to asylum.” (13)  However, responsibility in an interconnected world requires more than responsiveness to persons when they are already in need. It entails acknowledging one’s own role in contributing to inequality, exploitation and violence. To give a concrete example, the continuation and increase in European funding of the World Food Program could have given forcedly displaced persons in Jordan stability and prevented them from fleeing to Europe (14).  

Actions in the disguise of humanitarianism allow the European Commission to impose a “public order” in line with its own vision and to present this order as the right one. However, it is questionable whether deterrence policy will prevent people from fleeing from war or overcrowded refugee camps in the long term. The narrative of control bears the risk of disappointment, because it creates unrealistic expectations about the EU’s ability to regulate the phenomenon of migration in the long run. The European Commission’s assertion of control and order is not a self-fulfilling prophecy, particularly if the EU does not engage in critical self-reflection on the adequacy and limits of its policies in addressing root causes and the possibilities to also reap benefits from migration. Most concerning, both “humanitarian” interventionism and deterrence policies deprive the persons at whom they are addressed of their agency. They are presented not as bearers of rights, but as passive beneficiaries of European generosity (15). 

Challenging barriers

As the above examination of the Agreement illustrates, deterrence logic can lead us to think that migration is illegitimate, that migrating and asylum-seeking persons are one homogenous group that deserves to be scared away, and that Europeans are entitled to decide what is best for them. Unfortunately, it is difficult to challenge such seemingly ‘logical’ conclusions and self-evident representations, once they are in place. It might help that the legality of the Agreement, particularly the presumed ‘safety’ of Turkey for deported persons, is currently being contested in front of the European Court of Justice (16).  Yet, even if the Agreement were legal and perceived as effective, in view of fewer persons attempting to cross the Aegean Sea, challenging the logic of deterrence remains of utmost importance. For one, the logic of deterrence will continue to be a part of EU migration policy. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already expressed, similar agreements with Egypt and Tunisia will be concluded in the future (17).  Most significantly, however, the barriers erected by the logic of deterrence on our borders and in our minds will keep influencing how we think about migration and persons who migrate.

•     •     • 

About the Author 

Hanya Riedl is an MA candidate in International Law at the Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva. Alongside her studies, she has worked with the UNHCR Public Policy and Legal Advice Section on the Global Strategy "Beyond Detention" and with the UNICEF Regional Office for Central, Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (RO CEE/CIS) on child-sensitive economic and social policies. Previous work experience, such as with the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, allowed Hanya to explore topics ranging from disarmament to criminal justice, corporate compliance and human rights. Hanya completed her BA in Political Science and Economics at Columbia University in New York. Being German-Taiwanese, Hanya grew up in Bayreuth, Germany and spent a gap year after high school in Taipei.



The author and editor thank Meltem Aslan for her dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.


1. European Commission (EC), “EU-Turkey Statement: Questions and Answers,” European Commission – Fact Sheet, accessed Nov. 2, 2016, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-16-m. 963_en.htm

2. Ibid. 

3. See previously Asyldurchführungsverordnung (DVAsyl) § 7 Abs. 5 S. 3: “Sie [die Verteilung und Zuweisung] soll die Bereitschaft zur Rückkehr in das Heimatland fördern,“ p. 56, accessed on Sept. 18, 2016, www.proasyl.de/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Laendervergleich_Unterbringung_2014-09-23_02.pdf.

4. EC, “EU-Turkey Statement: Questions and Answers.”

5. International Organization for Migration, “Key Migration Terms,” accessed Oct. 20, 2016, www.iom.int/key-migration-terms#Irregular-migration.

6. European Commission (EC), “Implementing the EU-Turkey Statement - Questions and Answers.” European Commission - Fact Sheet, accessed Nov. 2, 2016, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-16-1664_en.htm.

7. Ibid. 

8. According to the Dublin Regulation of the Common European Asylum System, the so-called ‘first country of asylum’ or ‘safe third country’ concepts allow EU member states to return persons who are granted a protection status to the EU member state where they were first granted asylum or to a country outside the EU, which is considered safe for that person.

9. Council of the European Union, “EU-Turkey statement, 18 March 2016,” accessed Oct. 20, 2016, www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/03/18-eu-turkey-statement/.

10. EC, “EU-Turkey Statement: Questions and Answers.”

11. EC, “EU-Turkey Statement: Questions and Answers.”

12. Council of the European Union, “EU-Turkey statement, 18 March 2016.”

13. European Commission (EC), “Implementing the EU-Turkey Statement - Questions and Answers,” European Commission – Fact Sheet, accessed Nov. 2, 2016, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-16-1664_en.htm.

14. The Guardian, “Lack of funds: World Food Programme drops aid to one-third of Syrian refugees,” accessed Nov. 11, 2016, www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/05/lack-of-funds-world-food-programme-drops-aid-to-one-third-of-syrian-refugees.

15. Mahmoud Mamdani, "Responsibility to protect or right to punish?," Journal of intervention and statebuilding 4, no. 1 (2010), 56.

16. Express, “EU-Turkey refugee deal is ILLEGAL, shock court challenge claims” Jun. 14, 2016, accessed Jan. 3, 2017, www.express.co.uk/news/world/679768/EU-Turkey-refugee-deal-migrant-crisis-European-court.

17. Reuters, “Merkel: We need migrant deals with African states like EU-Turkey pact” Sept. 26, 2016, accessed Nov 11, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-germany-idUSKCN11W1FR.

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