Why Visa Waivers are Dangerous for Turks

Fierce criticism has greeted the claim by the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, about the dangers of giving Turks easier entry to Europe. He said that for the EU “to offer visa-free access to 75 million Turks to stem the flow of migrants across the Aegean seems perverse, like storing gasoline next to the fire.” He warned that extreme right wing populist parties in Europe would benefit from the hostile reaction to a fresh wave of migrants as has happened already in Austria and beyond.

In response to his remarks Dearlove was denounced for speaking in “tabloid language” and indulging in demagoguery. It was even suggested that his outspokenness was a cunning attempt to divert attention from the upcoming publication of the Chilcot report which is expected to criticise him over his role in Britain taking part in the Iraq war of 2003. Somewhere along the line – as with much of the rest of the debate on Britain’s membership of the EU – discussion has become disconnected from reality.

The issue of visa-free entry of Turks to the EU should raise a number of important questions. It pushes the outer barrier to the entry of migrants, as well as Isis and al-Qaeda terrorists, further south and east to Turkey’s 717-mile long border with Iraq and Syria. More than twice the length of the French-German border, this is highly porous and abuts on the world’s biggest war zone.

This war is no longer confined to Syria and Iraq, but has spread since last summer into south east Turkey where the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) are locked in a savage guerrilla war. Large parts of Kurdish cities in Turkey like Cizre and Diyarbakir are in ruins and at least 200,000 Turkish Kurds have fled, some of whom have been found in the boats trying to reach Greek islands in the Aegean.

There is something bizarre about EU policy when it comes to migration from this part of the world. It seems to be based on the supposition that refugees are in flight from the war in Syria, but in practice the battle zone is today far larger. The conflict is at its most intense in Syria, Iraq and south east Turkey, but there are at least seven wars and three serious insurgencies being fought out in the swathe of land between Pakistan and Nigeria. In Syria, Iraq and SE Turkey, with a total population of around 60 million, people fear that the only prospect is war and economic breakdown and want to get out.

I was talking earlier this year to a group of women the town of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan who were Arab and Kurdish refugees from Syria and Iraq. All were living in houses not camps and had some form of employment, but – with the exception of one woman from Fallujah whom the other refugees gently mocked for not being frank about her travel plans – all of them wanted to make their way to Europe.

Officials in Brussels and Berlin may imagine that lines on the map in the Middle East denote real barriers to movement. But the smuggling of people and goods is one of the main businesses in the Turkish-Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian border area, fuelled for decades by the profits to be made by evading sanctions imposed on Iran and Iraq. Note also that central government authority in this area is limited because the dominant ethnic group are Kurds at odds with Ankara, Baghdad and Damascus.

A further problem with the EU’s proposed front line is that on the Turkish side of the border the Turkish army has proved either incapable or unwilling to stop people crossing to, or from, Turkish territory. The PKK moves freely between its bases in the Kandil Mountains in Iraq and its hideouts in Turkey. In Syria Isis still controls a 60-mile-stretch of the border west of the Euphrates, fighting successfully over the last month to keep control of its populous and fertile territory in northern Aleppo province. The advance of the Syrian Kurds along the border has squeezed Isis’s access to Turkey but its fighters and supporters can still cross.

In fact, Isis may not have to send terrorists from its heartlands across the frontier since it already has ethnic Kurdish and Turkish cells in Turkey. Some of these were involved in suicide bomb attacks there last year and in future they can easily do the same inside the EU.

EU policy towards Turkey – centred on the migrant crisis and the threat of Isis terror attacks – is based largely on wishful thinking. The surge in migrant numbers and Isis terrorism will only be brought under control when the wars end in the Iraq-Syrian-SE Turkish triangle. EU leaders were briefly energised by the influx of migrants last summer, followed by the Isis killings in Paris and Brussels, but present proposals will be at best ineffectual and probably counter-productive.

The implementation of the visa-free regime in the 26-nation Schengen zone of the EU is currently being delayed by Turkish unwillingness to modify anti-terrorism laws that target all forms of criticism of the state. Nevertheless, EU officials speak confidently of the scheme going ahead with one saying that “it’s not the first time there has been quite provocative talk from the Turkish side, then we sat down and found a way forward.”

By making the southern border of Turkey the new barrier against migration and terrorism, EU leaders are deluding themselves by including part of the Middle East battle zone within their outer defences and pretending that there is no war in SE Turkey and the Turkish border is impermeable. Dearlove is right to say that the EU’s ill-judged response to the twin crises over migrants and Isis is set to fail and the political beneficiaries will be the proto-fascist right across Europe.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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