Angela Merkel surprised Germany’s allies and threw NATO into a tizzy earlier this week when she unexpectedly endorsed a Turkish proposal to have the military alliance help solve the migrant crisis. On Monday, Merkel spoke in Ankara; by Thursday, NATO ministers at a meeting in Brussels were voting for a deployment that hadn’t even been on their agenda 72 hours earlier.
The mission will be built around a small force already in the Mediterranean, the “flagship” of which is a German supply vessel, with assistance from Canada, Greece, Turkey, and soon, Denmark and others. Officials are speaking vaguely of intelligence-gathering against smugglers as the main purpose of the effort, but it’s clear that the details are to be worked out in the future. Mission creep in this case won’t be a peril so much as the point: if all goes well, this may well become the start of a larger effort.
If the project seems a bit slapdash, it contains a very important detail—one that marks a turning point in how Europe approaches the migrant crisis. As the Wall Street Journal reports:
Under international law any ship is obliged to rescue people in distress at sea. NATO officials acknowledge their ships may have to intercept migrant boats in trouble, if Turkish or Greek coast guard vessels are not near. But key to the NATO mission is an agreement among allies to return those migrants to Turkey, rather than taking them to Greece.
“There is a firm agreement backed by Turkey that refugees will be returned to Turkey,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said. “This is a clear signal to traffickers.”
One of the problems that has exacerbated the immigration crisis since its earliest days has been that various EU, Italian, and Greek maritime patrols have brought all those they rescued to European shores—where they could apply for asylum, travel within the EU (particularly north to Germany and Sweden), and be reasonably confident that very few even of those whose asylum claims were denied would ever be sent back. Thus, getting “caught” by coastal patrols has no deterrent value and in fact became a bit of a draw.
It would obviously be barbaric and unacceptable to let people drown to establish deterrence; at the same time, this situation was untenable. In fact, it has led to a great deal of suffering: one of the worst tragedies in the Med came when migrants rushed toward an Irish patrol vessel, excited about the possibility of rescue and a safer passage to Europe, causing their boat to capsize. Many others have traveled in unseaworthy vessels, with the possibility of rescue at least part of their calculus.
The seemingly obvious solution is to return the refugees to the country they’d set out from. But European refugee laws say its illegal to return refugees to unsafe countries, and Turkey, the relevant nation in this case, is not deemed by most European countries to be a “safe country of origin” due to the Kurdish conflict and civil rights abuses.
But these laws—written in the aftermath of World War II, to deal with situations like ethnic Germans being driven out of Czechoslovakia into Germany—are badly outdated. In an age of the hybrid refugee-migrant, they’ve proven woefully inadequate. As we’ve written before:
[T]he line between refugees (those fleeing war zones, whom the EU nations are obligated by law to shelter) and economic migrants is much blurrier in real life than on paper. These Iraqi men on the one hand are leaving behind a war zone and a collapsing government; on the other hand, as theJournal and their own words make clear, their move—and their destinations—is one of choice. They are both refugees and migrants.
This is particularly true of Syrians fleeing to Europe through Turkey—they are refugees in that they’ve fled the Syrian Civil War, but also economic migrants, in that they’re moving from Turkish refugee camps to Europe. From a physical standpoint, Turkey is safe for them. And the absolute obligation of EU nation-states to take them to Europe has become politically untenable. For there to be any chance of solving the migrant crisis, changing this legal situation was a necessary (if not sufficient) condition.
So the NATO mission is a big deal. The involvement of the Turkish government—which is part of NATO, but not the EU—in this latest effort seems to have changed the legal calculus. Also importantly, the German government finally seems to have firmly embraced the political necessity of returning refugees-migrants to Turkey. Three ships in the Aegean isn’t going to end the migrant crisis on its own. But we anticipate that, given the way the EU does business, once this precedent has been set, its scope will grow.