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Migration Policy Institute Director: EU-Turkey Deal Reflects 'Political Panic'


A deal has been struck. But what now? The accord raises as many questions as it answers. To help us understand this agreement and how it might work, we're joined by Elizabeth Collett of the Migration Policy Institute Europe. She's been monitoring the meetings in Brussels. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: This accord calls for sending asylum-seekers, or migrants, back to Turkey. How would that actually be done?

COLLETT: Well, initially, there was a concern that this deal would lead to collective expulsions, so the return of people without really adjudicating whether they had a valid claim for protection. And what we've seen over the course of this week is a gradual dialing back of that position to a point where individuals who wish to make a claim for asylum will have that claim assessed in the Greek islands. Now, what this means in practice is the idea that Turkey would be a safe country for certain people to receive protection. So it wouldn't just be those found not in need of protection who would be returned, but some of those who may have a valid claim for protection but could find that in Turkey. And that's been the most dramatic part of this disagreement and the most contentious.

SIEGEL: Here's some reaction from human rights groups. Amnesty International called this a dark day for Europe and humanity. Oxfam called the deal a further step down the path of inhumanity. Is Europe washing its hands of the refugee crisis and just paying the Turks to handle it?

COLLETT: I think, you know, Europe is not necessarily trying to wash its hands of the problem, but it is trying to change the terms upon which it offers protection to people. It wants to sort of break that link between if you reach the European Union and claim asylum, that's your main route to protection and offer different pathways, such as resettlement. However, you know, the numbers we're talking about in terms of resettlement are extremely small. It's hard to see how this isn't backing away from some of those responsibilities. And one would hope once that things are slightly less chaotic that governments would really increase the amount they're willing to resettle people and really dig down into thinking hard about what protection should be like, not only for those people who are in the region of Syria but globally and for those many people who are currently in distress in Greece itself right now.

SIEGEL: A key dimension of this agreement is to accelerate the process of Turkey's application to join the E.U. This comes at a time of increased political repression in Turkey. Is the E.U. willing to ignore its own founding principles to get some action on the refugee crisis?

COLLETT: I think there's a concern that leaders have been willing to sort of throw the baby out with the bathwater in terms of international protection frameworks but also commitments to fundamental rights. Now, I think you see that they are aware of that fact and have put some safeguards in certainly with respect to the return deal itself. But the key will be in implementation, and I think most E.U. member states recognize that they're not dealing with the same Turkey they might have been dealing with four or five years ago. And they need to be extremely cautious.

SIEGEL: I mean, the most cynical way of looking at is the Turkish government is throwing journalists and academics in jail and shutting down news organizations, but they're willing to keep some more Syrians from reaching Europe so let's ignore their current shortcomings.

COLLETT: We are in a situation right now where because other efforts to find a solution have failed, I think we see a certain degree of political panic at the highest levels of government to come up with some solution, any solution before warmer weather increases the numbers crossing from Turkey to Greece. It's not an ideal situation, but we're long past the point where there are any good solutions to this crisis. And you find leaders now are looking for least-worst options.

SIEGEL: Elizabeth Collett, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, speaking to us from Brussels. Thank you very much.

COLLETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.