When Turkey and Europe reached an agreement one year ago to restrict migration to Greece, it was bad news for Abu Samir, a Syrian-Palestinian people-smuggler in Istanbul.
By late 2015, Abu Samir, a former house painter from Aleppo, had become a key cog in one of the largest Europe-bound migrations in history, sending thousands of refugees, most of them Syrians, to Greece and earning up to US$4,000 on some days. However, in the 12 months since Turkey’s pact with the EU, his business has collapsed.
The problem: Too few refugees and too many border patrols.
As relations between Turkey and Europe plumbed new lows this week, fresh concerns were raised that smugglers such as Abu Samir — a nom de guerre he uses for security reasons — would soon be back in business.
In addition to accusing European governments of Nazism for refusing to allow referendum rallies in support of a new Turkish constitution in their countries, the Turkish government has hinted that it might scrap the one-year-old accord to restrict migration flows through Turkey in exchange for financial aid from the EU.
“We will review the migrant deal if necessary,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said on Monday night.
In Europe, the announcement prompted fears of a repeat of the 2015 migration surges that saw 850,000 people leave Turkey for Greece in a single year.
In Turkey, it gave Abu Samir renewed hope of better business.
“I expect waves of people,” the people-smuggler said in a video call on Tuesday night. “The business will come back to the way it was and maybe better.”
However, can Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turn on the migration tap as easily as Abu Samir thinks? As analysts have acknowledged, the dynamics that led to the 2015 migration have changed. As a result, it might no longer be in Turkey’s power — or its interest — to influence migration flows in the way that it did one year ago.
Since the EU first promised Turkey several billion euros for its help in stemming migration to Europe in late 2015, the number of refugees and migrants leaving Turkish shores had fallen to fewer than 1,500 in January from nearly 70,000 in January last year. There are several reasons for this drastic decrease, but one partial explanation lies in a crackdown on the Turkish smuggling industry that began during the winter of 2015.
As Abu Samir said:“Turkey wanted to show that they were stopping the smugglers.”
Migration through Turkey rose sharply in 2015, not just because of the impunity with which smugglers could operate, but also because it was comparatively easy for Syrian refugees to reach Turkey from Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. At the time, the Turkish-Syrian land border was easier to cross and Syrians in Amman and Beirut could fly to Turkey without needing to apply for a visa.
Nearly two years later, that is no longer the case. Syrians now need visas to enter Turkey, while the land border is much better protected. In theory, Erdogan could lift both restrictions.
However, analysts said this was unlikely as it would make Turkey even more vulnerable to infiltration by Islamic State group militants and risk angering nationalist Turks in the middle of a tightly fought ballot referendum that would give Erdogan broad new powers.
It would also mark “an incredible divergence” from one aim of Turkey’s ongoing military campaign inside Syria, “which is to create a safe space for refugees to move back” into Syria, said Aaron Stein, a Turkey specialist at the Atlantic Council, a policy research group.