The Watch the Med Alarm Phone published a statement on the 27th of May after being contacted by a Syrian refugee who was on one of two boats with a total of 1.000 people – mostly refugees from Syria and Iraq – in distress off the Libyan coast the day before. Through survivors they later learned that one of these boats sank leaving up to 400 people dead. The activists of the Alarm Phone claim that the closure of the Balkan route and the cruel EU-Turkey deal forces refugees to take the more dangerous route through Libya now, which in this case resulted in the death of hundreds of people. Here are some thoughts on how the EU-Turkey deal causes a shift in migration routes.
In the beginning of 2016 more and more Balkan countries closed their borders to refugees and migrants on their way to Western Europe, thus leaving Macedonia the only transit country. In the beginning of March the Macedonian government then decided to completely close its border too. The EU-Turkey deal was put into action only a few days later on the 20th of March. From then on every refugee arriving on the Greek islands has been and is being detained while they should get the possibility to apply for asylum, and being deported in cases of a negative outcome. Yet, the asylum procedure is not working effectively resulting in long waiting times. The legal procedures for family reunification in other European countries are almost impossible to access and the living conditions in the refugee camps are horrible. A total of 462 refugees were deported back to Turkey in the frame of the EU-Turkey deal, while more than 8.500 refugees are stuck on the Greek islands and about 44.000 on the Greek mainland. For those who do not fear the deportation back to Turkey, still there is no prospect of leaving Greece soon.
Facing these dramatic political changes and uncertainties, fewer refugees decided to continue their way to Greece and the number of arrivals went down rapidly from 26.971 in March to 3.650 in April and again to 1.721 in May according to UNHCR. Developments, which the European Union calls a success and a sign that the EU-Turkey deal is working. What they do not mention is that just because less refugees arrive in Greece, this does not mean that their situation in Turkey suddenly got significantly better or that reasons for flight vanished all of a sudden. With the Aegean route being shut down, refugees are forced to look for different flight routes and it seems that once more the route from Libya to Italy is becoming important.
Already, shortly after the EU-Turkey deal, different migration researchers and journalists predicted changes in migration routes towards Libya. Journalists from the Guardian and Deutsche Welle were reporting that refugees were starting to take into consideration alternative flight routes after having analyzed different posts on Facebook, where more and more people from Syria and Iraq were discussing re-using the route from Libya to Italy. An activist of the Watch the Med Alarm Phone draws similar conclusions in an interview with the Guardian: „We are monitoring Facebook pages in Arabic and we are witnessing lately that there are a lot of people arriving in Libya and willing to go to Europe.”
It is a fact that the Central Mediterranean route from Libya is becoming active again, which is mainly due to improved weather conditions. However, 1.083 people are feared to have lost their lives in nine separate incidents in the Mediterranean Sea between the 25th and 30th of May, a week that is now known as the deadliest week of this year so far. On the 26th of May the Alarm Phone was called by a Syrian refugee who was on a boat with 500 people – mainly refugees from Syria and Iraq – in distress off the Libyan coast, which the Alarm Phone interprets as a sign of more refugees shifting to the Central Med route due to the EU-Turkey deal. The boat in distress was towing another boat with about the same number of people onboard. This is probably the boat that capsized leading to the death of at least 400 people, according to testimonies made by the survivors after their arrival in Italy. The distress call was already the second one within the last week reaching the Alarm Phone from a Syrian national in distress on the way from Libya to Italy. It seems very probable that those refugees from Syria who recently crossed from Libya would have taken the Aegean route, if not for the EU-Turkey deal and the closure of the Balkan route.
Yet, another major incident occurred when a refugee boat capsized on the way from Egypt to Crete on the 3rd of June. 341 people were saved, nine bodies were recovered but 320 people are feared to have drowned. Already on the 18th of April a refugee boat from Egypt on the way to Italy capsized off Crete leading to the death of 400 people and few days before the last shipwreck, on the 31st of May, 130 refugees mainly from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan arrived in Crete, probably from Turkey. Even if these are just a few arrivals, could they indicate another flight route emerging?
The EU-Turkey deal does not only have consequences for migrants and refugees in Turkey or for those who are stuck (or rather detained) in Greece but its impact is way bigger leading to changes in flight route. There is a clear connection between the EU-Turkey deal, as well as the closure of the Balkan route, and the rise in arrivals from Libya and Egypt. Until now, it cannot be foreseen if the main escape route for refugees will really shift to the Central Mediterranean but there are some signs of it already. One thing is for sure, namely that the EU-Turkey deal does not prevent people fleeing from war and persecution and seeking safety in Europe, it only makes it more difficult and dangerous for them.
 Legally the EU-Turkey deal is based on a readmission agreement between Turkey and Greece, meaning that deportations actually happen in the frame of this “Protocol on readmission between the Government of Turkey and the Government of the Hellenic Republic“, signed in Athens on 18 November 2001, effective since April 2002.
by Lisa Groß
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