March 20th marks the second anniversary of the first bilateral “migration management” agreement of the European migration crisis. The agreement was forged between the European Union (EU) and Turkey to stem the flow of refugee and migrant arrivals in Europe. Turkey promised to halt the daily departures of thousands fleeing their homes and heading to the EU; in exchange the Union agreed to increase the resettlement of Syrian refugees stranded in Turkey, to liberalize free movement within the EU for Turkish citizens and to significantly increase refugee financial aid to Turkey. Quickly hailed as a durable migration management solution by policy makers, this bilateral agreement has become the basis for similar measures designed to curtail the flow of distress migrants seeking safety and refuge in Europe. Two years on, we pose a troubling question: Are these bilateral agreements really a durable solution for managing distress migration, or are they a vehicle for institutionalizing the flagrant violation of human rights?

Prior to March 2016, when the EU-Turkey agreement was introduced, Europe’s policy response to the large scale arrival of refugees and other distress migrants fleeing brutal humanitarian calamities in Syria and elsewhere was intra-EU relocation. In other words, the authorities sought to shift a significant proportion of the over one million recent arrivals away from the Southern Mediterranean entry sites in Greece and Italy to less burdened European destinations. From the outset, however, the scheme ran into difficulty as ever more EU member states rejected their responsibilities, refusing to accept distress migrants within their borders. In response, the EU authorities introduced the bilateral EU-Turkey agreement, switching their policy from providing durable and protective solutions to preventing migration flows altogether. The agreement had an immediate impact. It reduced new migrant arrivals on European (Greek) shores from 857,723 in 2015 to 28,205 in 2017, a 97% decrease. Bilateral agreements were promptly hailed as successful countermeasures to irregular migration and the related threats to EU borders.[1]

As the months went by, however, a different narrative began emerging as the impact of the agreement crystallized. Three developments in particular have raised grave human rights concerns. First, it has become ever more evident that EU barriers to mobility are generating chaos on the Greek islands. The EU-Turkey agreement has forced Greece to act as Europe’s de facto southern border police. Large numbers of distress migrants have found themselves trapped on tiny Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, converting whole communities into migrant holding areas.[2] The systemic lack of capacity on the islands, including limited service infrastructure and protracted delays in the processing of asylum applications has relegated tens of thousands of distress migrants to abysmal living circumstances in an apparently indefinite limbo of legal and material uncertainty.[3] Living conditions have progressively deteriorated as new arrivals have led to increased overcrowding, to the erection of makeshift tents in the periphery of already densely populated camps, to physical exposure to bad weather conditions, and to a series of preventable hazards caused by severe medical care shortages.[4] The situation has been exacerbated by inadequate access to sanitation facilities and clean water.[5] These conditions have persisted over many months, so they can no longer be explained away as a result of unexpected recent surges in migrant arrivals. At the time of this writing, a significant number of forced migrants continue to rely on wooden poles to elevate tarpaulins above the mud, and on plastic bottles as fuel to generate a heat source.[6] As Southern Europe experienced unusually powerful winter storms for two years in a row, the European Union, the richest regional block in the world, has stood by leaving some of the most vulnerable populations on its territory to fend for themselves.

Physical exposure to the elements and to deplorable living conditions have not been the only hazard caused by this forced cohabitation of destitute thousands. Limited safety and inadequate security measures have created a fertile breeding ground for abuse, violence, exploitation and a range of other antisocial conduct.[7] Gang activity now thrives in camps, especially during the night, while alcohol and drugs flow freely, aggravating the safety and mental health risks facing already traumatized populations. Among those directly affected are 350 unaccompanied children living in the Greek island camps, hundreds of families with children of all ages, and pregnant women.[8] Though these hazardous circumstances are well documented and widely publicized, the EU’s containment policy continues to prevent large-scale humanitarian relocation to more appropriate settings on Greece’s mainland or elsewhere within the EU.

A second spillover from the EU-Turkey agreement also has dramatic human rights consequences. The impact of enforced misery and degradation in and around the camps falls not just on the displaced population itself but on the local inhabitants within whose communities the forced migrants are trapped. This is a largely undocumented but nonetheless grave side effect of current EU policy. Local people on the Greek islands, who for months at the start of the large scale refugee arrivals exhibited impressive solidarity, generosity of spirit and compassion towards the populations they were hosting, now experience the severe frustration that comes with policy failure and its ensuing negative social impacts. As destitute migrants damage or forage from their physical surroundings, so residents are left to bear some of the brunt of the collective social distress alone. Inevitably collective political failure saps the potential for community solidarity, displacing spontaneous and broadly based human sympathy with nativist resentment, thrusting the responsibility for generosity of spirit onto populations poorly equipped to meet the ensuing social and economic challenges. Rising xenophobia is a predictable and tragic consequence of this leadership vacuum.

A third grave set of humanitarian spillovers from the EU – Turkey agreement has also emerged. Refugee and other vulnerable migrants trapped outside Europe and prevented from securing safety through the issue of visas, safe migration corridors or via the relatively short and manageable eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey’s western coast to the Aegean islands, are now forced to embark on much more dangerous migration routes in their quest for safety. In their thousands, refugees and other distress migrants fleeing intolerable life circumstances are heading to Libya, a violent and failing state ruled by warring gangs, and thence across the perilous central Mediterranean route to Southern Italy. Over the past months, grim but convincing evidence has emerged that migrants in Libya are trapped in extreme danger, some even sold into slavery, others trafficked for harsh agricultural labor or sexual exploitation, yet others subjected to severe abuse to extort ransoms from their non migrant relatives.[9] As refugees, other distress migrants and their supporters had predicted, EU measures to block direct access to Europe did nothing to solve the underlying multifaceted and complex drivers of forced migration, they merely displaced them onto yet more hazardous territory, increasing the tragic toll a fortified Europe had already extracted. The current “solution” to Europe’s migration crisis has consisted of the creation of inhuman shanty holding camps of excluded migrants at the Union’s southern periphery, the conversion of generous and compassionate local host populations into fearful and resentful restrictionists, and the proliferation of deadly escape routes for desperate refugees in search of survival options. Hardly a fitting set of outcomes for a self proclaimed cradle of universalist enlightenment principles and international human rights norms.

Judging by the evidence at hand, Europe should not be using the EU-Turkey agreement as a blueprint for managing migration. Regrettably, however, managing migration has become synonymous with successful exclusion of refugees and other forced migrants. And by this distorted criterion – a travesty of European post war humanitarian obligations – the agreement is being considered a success worth emulating, as the figures just quoted illustrate. This explains why, despite incontrovertible evidence of human rights outrages directly related to the EU-Turkey deal, Europe has moved quickly to enact new bilateral agreements across the region. The EU-Libya Collaboration[10] has stranded many forced migrants, including thousands of unaccompanied children, in Libya, one of Europe’s most unstable and lawless neighbors. Growing evidence of the human rights violations affecting migrants trapped in Libya has led the EU to sign yet another bilateral agreement, this time with the African Union. This agreement promotes the speedy evacuation of migrants, including children whether accompanied or not, from Libya back to their countries of origin.[11] While addressing the dire human rights situation facing migrants in Libya is certainly an urgent priority, doing so by removing migrants back to the countries they have chosen to leave represents another step away from an effective European non refoulement or protection approach. These recent EU agreements are likely to generate spillovers that are every bit as damaging to the human rights of forced migrants as their March 2016 predecessor.

As we mark the second anniversary of the first post “crisis” EU bilateral migration agreement, we should ask ourselves: Is it not time to acknowledge that “migration management” and “migrant exclusion” are not synonyms? Is it not time to support multi dimensional policy interventions to address an issue that is so evidently multi dimensional itself? Is it not time to take stock of the deadly legacy of 21st century Fortress Europe and replace it with a Europe that adheres to its human rights tradition and that engenders opportunity, inclusion and prosperity instead?

Fortunately, along with other United Nations members, the EU is currently engaged in a vigorous stocktaking of its migration management policies and in a series of related multilateral high level encounters that include precisely these considerations. Fixing our migration management systems does not have to entail turning migration into an elite prerogative as current EU policies suggest.  The outcome of the stocktaking, due to be presented to the UN General Assembly in September 2018, just 6 months from now, is expected to be a new collaborative global migration architecture, intended to both promote and protect the rights of all migrants and refugees while also engendering “safe, legal and regular” migration instead of the current proliferation of irregular and dangerous mobility.[12] We hope this process is successful so that the opportunity to migrate safely and legally once again is enshrined as a core European and human principle.


[1] European Commission. (March 17, 2017). EU-Turkey Statement: One year on. Available at:;

[2] The islands of Lesvos, Chios, Kos, Leros and Samos, and the main entry points for all migrants entering Europe through Greece.

[3] Human Rights Watch. (October 23, 2017). Greece: Asylum seekers in abysmal conditions on islands. Available at: The Washington post. (January 15, 2018). Conditions are horrific at Greece’s “island prisons” for refugees. Is that the point?. Available at:

[4] Reuters. (December 7, 2017). “This is not a life”: migrants stranded on Greek islands. Available at: .

[5] The Guardian. (December 6, 2017). Greek refugee camps “beyond desperate” as islanders protest in Athens. Available at: .

[6] The Washington post. (January 15, 2018). Conditions are horrific at Greece’s “island prisons” for refugees. Is that the point?

[7] DW. (February 9, 2018). UNHCR: Migrants in Greek camps at risk of sexual violence. Available at: Digidiki, V. & Bhabha, J. (April, 2017). Emergency within an emergency: The growing epidemic of sexual abuse and exploitation of migrant children in Greece. FXB Center for Health and Human Rights. Harvard University.

[8] Aljazeera. (January 19, 2018). Rare look at life inside Lesbos’s Moria refugee camp. Available at:

[9] Human Rights Watch. (March 16, 2018). In a man’s death, a glimpse of Libya’s horrors. Available at:; The CNN Freedom project. (March 13, 2018). “Tortured and held for ransom,” a child migrant’s story. Available at:

[10] Nakache, D. & Losier, J. (July 25, 2017). The European Union Immigration Agreement with Libya: Out of Sight, Out of Mind?. Available at:

[11] (November 30, 2017). Libya migrants: Emergency evacuation operation agreed. Available at:

[12] Global Compact for Migration. (February 5, 2018). Global Compact for safe, orderly and regular migration. Zero Draft. Available at: ; UNHCR. (June, 2017). The Global Compact on Refugees explained: An ICVA briefing paper. Available at: