Evidence-based assessment of the EU-Turkey refugee deal

Refugees's camp in Moria, Lesbos

To deal with migration flows towards Europe, EU countries increasingly form partnerships with the countries of origin of the migrants. The deal signed between the EU and Turkey in 2016 is a case in point. The research project ‘Evidence-based assessment of migration deals: the case of Turkey’ provided a critical assessment of collaborations on mixed migration flows between Europe and migrant sending countries. The final results of the research project were presented in 2017 in The Hague and Brussels. The results were used by high-level officials including the UN Special Rapporteur on Migrants' Human rights and the German Member of the European Parliament for the Greens.

The EU-Turkey refugee deal aims to reduce irregular migration and decrease migrant deaths, smuggling, and other human rights violations by providing legal alternatives. Turkey agreed to take back all new asylum seekers entering Greece from Turkey. In exchange, EU member states promised to increase resettlement of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey, accelerate visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals, and boost existing financial support for Turkey’s refugee population.

The EU-Turkey deal fits in a wider EU trend of externalizing migration policies and shifting responsibilities for migration control onto countries of origin and transit. In times of (perceived) increasing asylum and migration flows in Europe and a hardening political climate such deals are increasingly presented as a way to solve the ‘crisis’ (Zoomers et al. 2018).

Interviewing people on the move

This project focussed on the effects of the EU-Turkey deal. How did the deal transform mixed migration flows and people’s reliance on human smugglers therein? What has been the impact of the deal on resettlement from Turkey to Europe? To produce evidence-based insights on the implementation and the effects of the deal, the project team conducted field research in Greece, Turkey and Pakistan. The researchers interviewed forced returnees, migrants on the move and resettled families in the Netherlands. They also interviewed experts and conducted document analysis.

Turning the tide

The research shows that the EU-Turkey deal has not been successful in turning the tide. It should not be seen as a solution to a complex multi-layered problem. Despite all measures taken and money invested, migrants are still arriving on the Greek islands, albeit in smaller numbers. Besides, Syrians make up the largest share of new arrivals in Greece, illustrating that Turkey does not function as a safe third country for them. The deal furthermore resulted in people taking higher risks to cross borders to circumvent the controls in place. the main migration route towards Europe now passes through Libya and Italy (again) and the route from North Africa to Spain is gaining popularity as a result of closures elsewhere. As a consequence of these increasing restrictions at Europe’s borders migrants are becoming even more dependent on human traffickers, which was supposed to change with the EU-Turkey deal.

Trying again

Although in the short term the EU-Turkey deal has curbed a particular flow of people entering the EU, the interviews with repatriated migrants showed that many will try to come to Europe again, even after repatriation. According to the researchers, the most problematic consequence of this ‘cat and mouse game’ played at the borders is the high human cost involved. The number of people dying at Europe’s borders is still very high. The researchers fear these numbers are not going to drop until safe legal migration opportunities are offered.

Three problems

Apart from these general findings the research showed three specific problems with the design and implementation of the EU-Turkey deal:

  1. The fast-track asylum procedures are implemented within the framework of exceptional measures in times of a ‘crisis’. These should not replace quality assessment and should still guarantee access to the asylum system for migrants. 
  2. The researchers observed discrimination on grounds of nationality in both asylum case management and police practices.  
  3. The EU-Turkey deal was designed around the assumption that Turkey is a safe third country, but it is very difficult for refugees to get access to Turkish asylum procedures, and to protection or access to basic needs such as education or employment in the country. 

New deals

Even though the research project focused on one agreement with Turkey, with new deals in the making between the EU and migrant sending countries the results of this research can be of wider use and value for European policymakers. The EU-Turkey deal is sometimes explicitly referred to when other deals are made, or parts of the deal are copied. For future deals to take into account, the researchers recommend that policy-makers should not focus only on trying to stop migration and imposing the responsibility on other countries without taking into account human right violations. Refugee protection should be seriously taken into account if migration deals with countries such as Nigeria or Libya were to be made.

International cooperation

The research was carried out in an interdisciplinary team with people who were familiar with the different geographical contexts of the research. Utrecht University researchers Dr Ilse van Liempt and Prof Annelies Zoomers collaborated with a legal scholar from the VU University Amsterdam, a researcher with experience in the field of deportation, the NGO Borderline Europe from Berlin and a Pakistani journalist and photographer.


Contact person: Ilse van Liempt I.C.vanLiempt@uu.nl

Website : https://migratiedeals.sites.uu.nl


  • Zoomers, E.B., van Noorloos, H.J. & van Liempt, I.C. (2018), Will Tailor-made Migration Deals help to solve the European Migration 'Crisis'?. In Dina Siegel & Veronika Nagy (Eds.), The Migration Crisis. Criminalization, Security and Survival. Eleven International Publishers.
  • Liempt, I. van, Alpes, M.J., S. Hassan, S. Tunaboylu, Ulusoy, O. & Zoomers, A. (2017), 20171221-Final Report-WOTRO. Evidence based assesment of migration deals: the case of the EU Turkey Statement, Utrecht: Universiteit Utrecht.
  • Alpes, J., S. Tunaboylu, O. Ulusoy & S. Hassan (2017), Post-deportation risks under the EU-Turkey statement: what happens after readmission to Turkey? policybrief 2017/30, Migration Policy Center.
  • Alpes, J., Tunaboylu, S. & I. van Liempt (2017), Human rights violations by design : EU-Turkey statement prioritises returns from Greece over access to asylum, policy brief 2017/29, Migration Policy Centre.
  • Zoomers, A. & van Liempt, I. (2017). Migratie: van ontmoedigingsbeleid naar banenplan, ViceVersa, 10 October 2017
  • Zoomers, A. & van Liempt, I. (2017). Van Anti-Migratiedeals Naar Beleid Om Te Blijven , Clingendael Spectator , 27 September 2017
  • van Liempt, I. (2017). Uncovering the Direct and Indirect Consequences of the EU-Turkey Deal, KPSRL, 29 September 2017