In an exclusive interview with Today's Zaman on the eve of upcoming negotiations on Dec. 4 for a new round of discussions for signing a readmission agreement between Turkey and the EU, Marc Pierini, the head of the Delegation of the European Commission to Turkey, said, “The EU and Turkey are facing similar challenges, and they have to fight illegal immigration and human trafficking networks together.” “This is not an EU versus Turkey issue” he noted, adding that the EU Commission will use its own resources to help coordinate better border control mechanisms with Turkey.
The EU ambassador also dismissed claims that the EU is not consulting with Turkey while negotiating re-admission agreements with third countries like Pakistan, whose citizens flock to EU member states using Turkish soil as a transit route. “That [criticism] is over. We do consult Turkey,” he said, emphasizing that the commission and Turkey have a permanent dialogue on immigration issues. He lamented that in the past the consultation was intermittent but stressed that the problem has now been resolved and the EU Commission has appointed a new counselor whose task is to coordinate policies with Turkey on these issues.
The EU and Turkey have long been at odds over the critical issue of illegal immigration and repatriation of those caught in member states. The EU alleges that Turkey is not doing enough to tackle illegal immigration coming from the East, especially from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, claiming the country has failed to fulfill its promises to repatriate illegal immigrants who pass through Turkey and are later detained in EU member states.
Turkey, on the other hand, claims that the EU is shying away from sharing the financial burden with Turkey and is not doing enough to coordinate immigration and resettlement policies with Ankara. It is estimated that every year almost 72,000 illegal immigrants go to Europe via Turkey, although Turkey apprehended approximately 65,000 illegal immigrants in 2008. The readmission agreement envisages sending immigrants back to their countries of origin via Turkey.
Clearing the air on financial help
The EU's point man Pierini also took the occasion to clarify some of the confusing issues when it comes to sensitive problem of illegal immigration. He said there are two sets of different issues at play on the funding of two closely linked but distinct immigration policies in the EU. “We have realized that there is great confusion in Turkey on readmission and resettlement policies and the funding thereof,” he said, stressing that the latter works only within the framework of member states and has nothing to do with Turkey.
Readmission refers to the practice of sending illegal immigrants seized in the EU member states back to Turkey for eventual repatriation to their country of origin. This applies only when illegal immigrants were proved to have used Turkish territory as a transit route. They are hosted in removal centers in Turkey while waiting to be processed and deported to their home countries. That only works, of course, if the EU has negotiated a readmission agreement with the country of origin. “We realize that and are working hard to broker an agreement with source countries,” Pierini said, stressing that they keep Ankara in the loop.
He also refuted claims that the EU is giving little to Turkey, a candidate country to the EU, while providing substantial assistance to member states like Turkey's immediate neighbor Greece, where most immigrants cross over from Turkey. It was reported that Turkey is getting 75 euros per head while Greece is getting 1,000 euros per illegal immigrant to offset the costs of housing and repatriation of these people. “It is like comparing apples and pears,” he said, pointing out that two different policies are at work on either case.
He said the EU never bases its reasoning on certain figures of euros per head when it comes to readmission policy. “We work through projects and provide financial assistance as well as training and exchange of expertise,” he said, adding that the EU will be willing to do more once both sides have an agreement in place.
On the related but different subject of resettlement, the EU ambassador said the policy is managed under the European Refugee Fund (ERF), which was established to support and improve the efforts of member states to grant refugee or asylum status to beneficiaries. It provides direct financial assistance to prospective refugees and does not apply to Turkey as it is not yet a full member of the 27-nation bloc.
Pierini acknowledges that vetting legitimate asylum seekers out of thousands of illegal immigrants is a very difficult job. Most are economic immigrants who seek better living standards. He also noted that Turkey in itself is becoming a country of destination for economic immigrants as the country's relative wealth has risen considerably in recent years.
Temporary hosting in Turkey
Stressing that the EU is not asking of Turkey to permanently settle illegal immigrants on its soil, the EU ambassador said, “We simply ask you to host these people in reception and removal centers for a limited period of time before they are sent back to their country of origin.” Turkey is concerned, however, that it will be left alone to shoulder the burden once illegal immigrants are dumped on its soil by member states. Ambassador Pierini pledges that the EU will help Turkey run reception and removal centers in line with EU standards.
“Yes, we are willing to share the burden. We will apply our resources. We know the amount [of financial assistance] until 2013, then we have our next budget cycle,” he said. Turkey has already drawn up plans to build new modern immigration centers around the country. But plans are facing resistance from local residents who argue that centers will drive down property values and risk increasing crime rates in their neighborhoods. The issue is a very sensitive one as politicians are also weighing in under the pressure of constituencies. “It is a very difficult issue. You have to convince the [local] population that this is not a group of people that will stay there for a long time, not like life-term prisoners,” Pierini remarked.
He also stressed that the EU is ready to reinforce cooperation on border management in Turkey. “We recognize that it is a huge task as Turkey has long borders and a tough terrain at some points,” he said, signaling the commission will soon have more projects under way to help Turkey boost its border controls. He pointed out that the international network of human traffickers poses a major threat to both the EU and Turkey. “These are powerful networks, and sometimes are better equipped than the security forces,” he underlined.
The problems will not go away once we sign the readmission agreement, the EU ambassador argued, noting that continuing misery, poverty and conflict in Asian and African countries will push more people to seek better lives in other countries. “The important thing is that we have a permanent dialogue in place with Turkey,” he said.
Pierini said the readmission agreement of Turkey with Greece, signed in 2001 may still coexist even after the agreement is signed with the EU as a whole. “We will have to see the specifics of the final EU-Turkey readmission agreement on that. It depends on the provisions,” he said. Pierini also noted that visa waiver agreements Turkey has signed with countries like Syria, Georgia, Albania and Libya may present problems on the day Turkey becomes a full member. “We have seen a similar case when Sweden became a member while its neighbor Norway stayed out of it,” he said. However, the issues could be resolved during negotiations of Chapter 24 which deals with justice, freedom and security. “It is a very difficult chapter to negotiate,” he noted.
Ambassador Pierini also confirmed that once the readmission agreement was signed, the EU may start easing visa issuance to Turkish citizens and facilitate the granting of visas for professionals, businesspeople, journalists and scientists.