Negotiations between Turkey and the EU over how to handle the Syrian refugee crisis took a surprising turn recently when Turkish negotiators demanded that any agreement on their part would require an eventual path to EU-membership. For Turkey to agree to take back new arrivals to Europe unable to qualify for legal refugee protection, the negotiators further requested from EU officials that they ease visa restrictions and double their existing pledge of $3.3 billion in aid to Turkey.
Using refugees and migration as a tool of coercion isn’t new, especially in the politics of the region. Turkey and other surrounding mostly Muslim nations have used it on several occasions and generally with a large degree of success.
It’s been widely accepted that the arrival of 1,200 Turkish Kurds onto the shores of Italy in 1998 was deliberately engineered by Turkey in order to push talks with the EU about possible inclusion. Then, as now, interviews with the “refugees” revealed they were planning to take advantage of the EU’s Schengen Agreement on unrestricted movement within the trading bloc to eventually land in the more generous welfare state of Germany. The move of course didn’t work (Turkey’s still not in the EU). But the exodus no doubt served an additional goal for Turkey, namely the exportation of some of its Kurdish independence elements, long a source of domestic tension for the Turkish state.
Following the First Gulf War, Turkish refugee politics arose when Kurdish uprisings in Iraq led to around half-a-million Kurdish refugees fleeing toward Turkey’s borders. Turkey demanded concessions from the U.S. which it blamed for the exodus, claiming it had been deliberately engineered by Saddam Hussein as retribution against Turkey for it having sided with the U.S. The U.S. relented and, along with the UN’s Security Council, they created a quasi-independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, giving Turkey what it wanted.
During his tenure as Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi engineered several out-migrations against the EU and neighboring North African states. In the eighties, he expelled over 100,000 foreign workers who came from countries that formed the North African Treaty of Fraternity and Concord, peace accord that Libya was excluded from. In 2004, in an attempt to pressure the EU into lifting economic sanctions against Libya, Gaddafi publicly stated it could “no longer act as Europe’s coast guard” and proceeded to allow thousands of Libyan migrants to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. The EU relented and promised financial assistance in exchange for cooperation on the migration issue. This success pushed Gaddafi to up the ante two years later. This time, Gaddafi demanded 10 billion euro a year from the EU in order to keep future mass migrations at bay. At a meeting at the African Union, he stated, “Europeans who do not want to take the immigrants in should either emigrate to America or pay Libya to keep its borders closed.” The EU was able to negotiate a smaller sum, but relented nonetheless.
During the 1990s, the country of Albania engineered mass migrations into the EU on three separate occasions. Against both Italy and Greece, then-President Ramiz Alia was able to secure over $100 million in investment and aid in exchange for his cooperation in enforcing his own country’s border controls. In the case of Italy, although initially sympathetic with the refugees, the public began demanding action after the boatloads began appearing on their shores without end.
Following another attempt by Albania in 1997, Italy decided to break ranks with the EU which had failed to act and, much like the government of Hungary and Austria today, they opted to apply border control measures unilaterally. It deployed naval forces to the Adriatic Sea to stop the invasion and deported many of the Albanians who had previously landed.
Following last Sunday’s regional elections in Germany, critics say “Mutti” Merkel’s party and her open-arms policy toward Middle Eastern asylum-seekers now face an “existential” threat from new patriotic parties. On top of the above examples, Merkel’s advisors in the lead up to next year’s national elections could take a cue from one of our own experiences with refugee- and morality-politics. During the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton sought to gain the moral upper-hand over George H.W. Bush by painting him as “cruel” and “immoral” for his policy of interdicting at sea boats carrying asylum-seekers from then war-torn Haiti. Clinton’s continued pressure on Bush during his campaign gradually provoked tens of thousands more Haitians to take to the sea, many in crudely-made and dangerous homemade vessels. Immediately following his election-win, Clinton quickly descended from his moral high-ground and reversed his open-arms position with Haiti committing one of the biggest flip-flops in his career.