For Ayla Agit, the deal signed in March between Europe and Turkey to stem the flow of migrants and refugees was a prayer answered. “Finally, we have a chance to get a new life in Germany!” says Agit, who was driven from her home this past October by fighting. The twist: Agit isn’t a Syrian refugee; she’s a Turkish citizen. Her hometown of Cizre was the scene of street battles between Kurdish militants and the Turkish army last year that left close to 200 dead. Now she and thousands of other internally displaced Turkish Kurds are planning to join the exodus to Europe.
Under the deal, all Turkish citizens are to be granted visa-free travel, yet not the right to work, in the 26 nations in Europe’s border-free Schengen area. In exchange, Turkey agreed to take back all refugees who cross into Greece using irregular means after March 20. For every person accepted back by Turkey, the EU promised to take a Syrian asylum seeker from camps in southeast Turkey. The Europeans will also hand over 6.5 billion euros ($7.3 billion) to help Ankara deal with the estimated 2.7 million Syrian refugees on its soil.
The deal means disappointment—or at least legal limbo—for the thousands of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and people of other nationalities who have been piling into flimsy boats since last summer to reach Greece. But for the hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens displaced by a growing civil war between Kurdish separatists and security forces in Turkey’s turbulent southeast, it’s a green light to a new life in Europe. “Before, we had no hope of getting a German visa,” says Agit, 43, who has been scraping out a living in Istanbul’s run-down Bayrampasa neighborhood as a cleaner in a sweatshop that makes fake designer shoes. “The [German visa office] asks you to prove your income with money in a bank account,” she says.
Now she doesn’t need a visa. All Agit, a widow with five children, needs to get is the plane fare and a biometric Turkish passport. Once on EU soil, she and all Turkish Kurds like her who can prove political persecution or a threat to their lives if they return home are eligible to claim political asylum. Agit is likely to qualify, as her brother is in jail for membership in an illegal organization and police have raided her home multiple times. And thanks to a tourism industry depressed by bombings in Ankara and Istanbul, Turkish charter airlines are offering one-way flights to Europe for as little as $55.
It’s not quite a done deal. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, returning from the marathon Turkey-EU summit, boasted to reporters that he’d pulled off a “Kayseri bargain”—a Turkish expression meaning “a cunning deal.” But for the visa-free agreement to be implemented in full, Turkey still needs to pass 36 laws to bring it closer in line with EU legislation, including the politically tricky insistence that Ankara recognize the government of Cyprus, with which it has been locked in dispute since 1974. And there has been opposition inside the EU, notably from France, Greece and Austria, whose interior minister, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, warned that the decision to turn back new arrivals to Greece risked “the EU throwing its values overboard.” Human Rights Watch Director Kenneth Roth denounced the deal as “collective expulsions, which are prohibited under the European Convention on Human Rights,” and denied that conflict-torn Turkey was a safe place for migrants and refugees. “[Turkey] is more likely to be a death trap than a place of sanctuary,” wrote Roth in a letter to EU leaders.
Already a major flaw in the new agreement has been exposed. Turkish law does not recognize citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq as refugees—and therefore the EU cannot legally send citizens of those countries to Turkey. Greek government figures show that Afghans and Iraqis accounted for 41 percent of the 125,000 people who have arrived on the Greek islands this year.
While politicians argue, people smugglers have quickly adjusted. If visa-free travel for Turks comes in June, a Turkish travel document will be almost as valuable on the black market as a European one—and far easier to obtain. Mehmet, the proprietor of an Internet café in Istanbul’s Aksaray district (who, like others speaking about black market trading, declined to be identified in full), casually clicks through a series of classified-ad websites and Facebook pages offering passports. One site offers supposedly real
Bulgarian passports for around $8,950, but Turkish ones are available for just $2,795. “It’s easy for Ahmed from Mosul [in Iraq] to become Ahmed from Diyarbakir [in Turkey],” Mehmet jokes.
All around Aksaray, money transfer shops and exchange booths offer a service that allows people to pay into a third-party account, explains Omar, a money-changer’s clerk, and smugglers receive the money once their clients have made it safely to Greece. The March deal has put a dent in demand for sea passages to the Greek islands. Internet prices have fallen from around $725 before the agreement to around $390 now. Television pictures of Turkish authorities getting tough on boats that are smuggling people have also scared some off. Footage filmed off Lesbos by pro-refugee activists on March 20 showed a large Turkish coast guard cutter spinning circles around a rigid inflatable boat packed with people (the inflatable eventually made it safely to land). The Turkish coast guard also opened fire on people traffickers attempting to dump passengers on a tiny Greek island hours after the deal was signed.
“The Turks got what they wanted from Europe. So now they are shooting the boats,” says Abu Malik, a civil engineer from Kirkuk in Iraq. Malik fled with his family in November 2014. “The [Greek] route is for fools now. But we will find another way.” Some are expected to turn to the sea route to Italy from Albania or Libya, though the death rate last year on that route was nearly one in 20, according to the International Organization for Migration, compared with less than one in 1,000 between Turkey and Greece. And according to Abdulrahman, a student from Qamishli, Syria, who came to Istanbul from a refugee camp near Gaziantep in February (and declined to give a last name), a black market has opened for places in the “line” for Europe. Refugee camp authorities—including the Red Cross and the EU—maintain the list. But there are professional brokers who will buy a family’s spot in the queue and sell it, along with their IDs, to the highest bidder.
“People are desperate,” Abdulrahman says with a shrug. “They will always find a way.”