Earthquake in Turkey: Refugees’ Blood on the EU’s Hands

By Oliver Hembury-Gunn

Refugees are treated as political objects by governments worldwide as part of official migration policies. As part of their border defence policies, rich democracies pay huge sums to convince refugee and migrant ‘sender countries’ to block refugees’ onward travel into their borders.[1] Often, governments make no distinction between refugees and labour migrants, meaning there is no feasible legal path for refugees, fleeing from persecution and war, to find safety. 

Furthermore, when rich democracies fund regimes with poor human rights records and high levels of human rights violations, particularly against these migrants and refugees, the cycle is perpetuated. The EU, the UK, the US, Canada and Australia have all funded countries with unethical regimes to stop migrants and refugees accessing their borders, despite being aware that this can lead to abuse and death from persecution or from dangerous smuggling attempts. In addition, EU countries often carry out stated human rights abuses at their borders. For example: Spanish border guards have shot migrants needing rescue in the water with rubber bullets near Melilla, causing many to drown and the Bulgarian border is infamous for abusing anyone attempting to enter the border.[2] Italy further demonstrates this entire process: the Italian government has consistently funded the Libyan autocratic regime, with a truly shocking human rights record, to prevent migrants crossing the Mediterranean.[3] As standard procedure, Italy didn’t rescue migrants drowning in the Mediterranean until an EU court deemed it illegal not to, and when they are caught or rescued by Italian vessels, they are often illegally sent them back to Libya, where they are put in detention centres, then frequently horrifically tortured because their escape meant Libya was failing to hold their side of the deal with Italy. This demonstrates a circle of perpetual abuse.

Once a refugee is in an EU member country it is extremely challenging to expel them and, sadly, public opinion consistently show greater numbers of refugees and migrants are unwelcome in almost every rich democracy.[4] Yet these border defence strategies, such as Italy’s, have unacceptable consequences: funding and legitimising autocratic regimes and using human beings as political chess pieces deprived of human rights. These policies directly increase deaths and abuses for refugees and migrants across the world.

Turkey is such a similar example of this, it holds the greatest number of migrants and refugees in the world. The ‘EU-Turkey deal’, made in 2016, provided €6 billion (!!!) to “improve the humanitarian situation” for refugees in the country, in exchange for stopping migrants and refugees to get into the EU via Greek islands.[5] Before the deal, in 2015, Turkey was recognised as a safe country for refugees by an EU Commission, despite widespread evidence that it failed the criteria to be designated so.[6] It’s much more plausible the Commission’s decision was merely a political decision to legitimise the unethical deal. There is little evidence Turkey spent the €6 billion on improving conditions for refugees however there is evidence that Turkey previously deliberately encouraged migrant flows into the EU in order to get a bigger deal.[7] Furthermore, Turkey used and still uses migrant and refugees as political tools to gain income and legitimacy from the EU, which is all the more questionable given Turkey’s poor record of human rights violations, especially for migrants.Let’s switch focus to the enormous earthquake on the 6th February 2023 in South-East Turkey, near the Syrian border. Most of those killed and trapped in the rubble are Syrian refugees.[8] Humans who had been forced into terrible living conditions and were blocked from onwards travel by the above political arrangements. In other words, their blood is on the EU’s hands.


[1] FitzGerald, D.S., 2019. Refuge beyond reach: How rich democracies repel asylum seekers. Oxford University Press.

[2] FitzGerald, 2019 ; France24, 2023. Bulgaria accused of brutal border pushbacks.

[3] Médecins Sans Frontières, 2022­­.

[4] Banulescu-Bogdan, N., 2022. From fear to solidarity: The difficulty in shifting public narratives about refugees. Migration Policy Institute.

[5] What is the EU-Turkey deal? 18th March 2022.

[6] European Commission, EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan, Fact sheet, MEMO/15/5860, November 2015 ; Roman, E., Baird, T.E. and Radcliffe, T., 2016. Why Turkey is not a ‘safe country’.

 [7] FitzGerald, D.S., 2019. Refuge beyond reach: How rich democracies repel asylum seekers. Oxford University Press.

[8] 2023 Turkey and Syria earthquake: Facts, FAQs, and how to help.

Header image by unsplash

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