The 18 March Immigration Agreement And Its Effects On Turkey's Migration Policies
The 18 March Immigration Agreement And Its Effects On Turkey's Migration Policies

The 18 March Immigration Agreement And Its Effects On Turkey’s Migration Policies

Today, millions of people fleeing wars, internal conflicts and natural disasters in their own countries and struggle to survive in other countries.
Today, millions of people fleeing wars, internal conflicts and natural disasters in their own countries and struggle to survive in other countries.

Today, millions of people fleeing wars, internal conflicts and natural disasters in their own countries and struggle to survive in other countries.

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Research by Aylin Arslan

According to the data of The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 79.5 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced by the end of 2019. According to the same data, approximately 26 million of this number are children under the age of 18. Humanitarian crises and natural disasters in different parts of the world cause this number to increase day by day. One of these crises is the Syrian Crisis that started in 2011 and still continues.

Approximately 5.6 million people were forcibly displaced following the Syrian crisis and spend their lives as refugees in other countries. Turkey is the country hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world, with a population of approximately 3.6 million Syrians. 2 million Syrians live in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, respectively. The remaining 1 million Syrians have applied for asylum in Western countries such as Europe, Canada and the USA.

After the Syrian crisis, Turkey faced an intense irregular migration. Turkey adopted the “Open Door” policy after the 2011 Syrian crisis. With this policy, Turkey has protected millions of Syrians who are subjected to unfair treatment and whose life safety is in danger, and provided the necessary humanitarian aid. The fact that Turkey is a natural bridge between Europe and the Middle East and Asia also causes it to be used as a transit route by irregular migrants. After the Syrian crisis, there has been an irregular migration movement from the Aegean and Mediterranean to the Greek islands, especially since 2014.

The 18 March Immigration Agreement And Its Effects On Turkey's Migration Policies
The 18 March Immigration Agreement And Its Effects On Turkey’s Migration Policies

Thousands of people who have escaped from the humanitarian crises in their countries and who have been displaced want to reach Europe in the hope of achieving better living conditions. On the other hand, Europe, faced with an intense immigration wave, adopts strict migration policies and increases its border security day by day. However, despite all these attempts, irregular migration continues and it is predicted that it will continue.

A total of 238 thousand irregular migrants have been caught by the authorities since 2015. Coast Guard Command teams caught 37 thousand 130 irregular migrants in 2016, 21 thousand 937 in 2017, and 26 thousand 678 in 2018 during the sea inspections. The number of immigrants captured, which decreased after the “Readmission Agreement” signed between Turkey and the European Union in March 2016, increased again in 2019. The number of irregular migrants caught in the seas in 2019 was 60,802. This number was also recorded as the highest number after 2015. Since 2014, 15 thousand 839 people who set out from the Mediterranean to reach Europe have lost their lives in the seas before reaching their destination. More than one million refugees managed to reach Europe in this process.

One of the main routes used by these people who are not able to migrate regularly is to reach the target country illegally by contacting the migrant smugglers. The crime of migrant smuggling stands out as one of the most important problems to be tackled. All these problems have made the issue of irregular immigration an agenda for both Turkey and Europe.

The 18 March Immigration Agreement And Its Effects On Turkey's Migration Policies
The 18 March Immigration Agreement And Its Effects On Turkey’s Migration Policies

There has been a need to act jointly and develop common solutions to combat irregular migration. With this requirement, the “Joint Migration Action Plan” was implemented between the European Union and Turkey on November 29, 2015 and efforts were made to develop solutions to the problem of irregular migration. In this context, joint meetings are held in certain periods. Following one of these meetings, the Turkey – EU Summit on 18 March 2016, important decisions were taken that would affect migration policies on both sides. The summit declaration called the 18 March Immigration Consensus includes important articles on combating irregular immigration, increasing national border security, readmission agreement, Turkey’s EU membership and Syrians’ social adaptation.

In this article, the impact of the 18 March Immigration Agreement on Turkey’s migration policies is discussed. In this context, the reflection of the Immigration Agreement signed on 18 March 2016 on Turkey’s migration policies and what it means for Syrians is evaluated in general terms. The research article was compiled with the information obtained from the literature review.

The 18 March Immigration Agreement And Its Effects On Turkey's Migration Policies
The 18 March Immigration Agreement And Its Effects On Turkey’s Migration Policies

The Concept of Irregular Migration

It is seen that the phenomenon of immigration, which has been continuing since the early ages of human history and is expected to continue in the future, has evolved due to reasons depending on the conditions of each period. Migration, which was characteristic of societies in antiquity, was taking place towards the places where the nomadic societies whose basic livelihood was animal husbandry and fertile lands. With the Industrial Revolution, it is seen that after the dissolution of the Feudal order, people mostly migrated to cities to find jobs and work in the regions where factories are located. Similarly, migration from rural areas to large commercial and industrial centers continues today (Castles and Miller, 2014).

For a long time, migration studies have been shaped on the axis of the perspective that migration occurs especially due to economic reasons. However, today the phenomenon of migration has become too extensive and complex to be explained solely due to economic reasons. The neo-liberal policies and globalization process that prevailed in the whole world after 1980 deeply affected the economic and social structures of the countries, and the poverty problem started to deepen in underdeveloped and developing countries. However, ethnic and religious pressures, internal conflicts, wars and natural disasters started to increase.

Today, there are millions of people from all over the world who are subjected to persecution and injustice for various reasons, who have difficulties in accessing their basic rights and cannot live in their own countries. The vast majority of these people have to leave their country and take refuge in other countries. These people who leave their countries due to compulsory reasons migrate irregularly.

Depending on the legal status, migration is divided into two as regular and irregular migration. Regardless of the reason and duration of migration, this mobility can take place in two ways. The first of these is the regular migration movements in accordance with the legislation, which regulate the departure from the country of origin and the departure to the destination country, transit and entry (IOM, 2009).

Migrations that occur outside of the rules regulated by the countries of origin, transit and destination are called irregular migration. In irregular migration, there is a conflict with the structure and processes of regular migration. The concept of irregular immigration is a definition used for foreigners who lack legal status in the transit country or host country due to illegal entry or visa expiration. Therefore, a regular migration can turn into an irregular migration over time (IOM, 2009).

Irregular Migration Movements in Turkey

After the crisis that broke out in Syria in April 2011, millions of people were displaced and took refuge in different countries, especially Turkey. Irregular migrants took refuge in neighboring countries, especially Turkey. In addition to Syrian irregular migrants, there are a significant number of Afghan, Iranian and Iraqi irregular immigrants in Turkey. Irregular migration has serious economic and social impacts on destination and transit countries. Wars, internal conflicts, economic, social and political instabilities in Turkey’s eastern and southeastern neighbors cause intense irregular migration from these countries to Turkey and Europe. Turkey’s geopolitical position causes it to be exposed to irregular migration movements for many years.

The 18 March Immigration Agreement And Its Effects On Turkey's Migration Policies
The 18 March Immigration Agreement And Its Effects On Turkey’s Migration Policies

Immigrants who cannot reach Europe from Turkey on a regular basis resort to illegal methods such as human trafficking and immigrant smuggling. As mentioned in the relevant place, it is seen that irregular migration to Europe via Turkey has increased especially since 2015. Statistical data show that thousands of people want to reach the target countries at the cost of their lives; shows that they use every means for this purpose.

Faced with an intense immigration wave, the European Union develops new strategies to combat irregular migration and realizes joint action plans with Turkey. One of these joint actions is the “Immigration Agreement” signed between the parties on 18 March 2016. After the immigration agreement, important decisions concerning both sides were taken and put into practice. It is seen that the Immigration Agreement has important effects on Turkey’s migration management.

18 March Migration Agreement

The EU, after the increase in the number of irregular migrants trying to cross from Turkey to Europe illegally, started to cooperate with Turkey and started to develop common strategies. One of these joint action plans is the “Immigration Agreement” signed between Turkey and the EU on 18 March 2016.

The articles of the agreement are as follows ;

• All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey. This will take place in full accordance with EU and international law, thus excluding any kind of collective expulsion. All migrants will be protected in accordance with the relevant international standards and in respect of the principle of non-refoulement. It will be a temporary and extraordinary measure which is necessary to end the human suffering and restore public order. Migrants arriving in the Greek islands will be duly registered and any application for asylum will be processed individually by the Greek authorities in accordance with the Asylum Procedures Directive, in cooperation with UNHCR. Migrants not applying for asylum or whose application has been found unfounded or inadmissible in accordance with the said directive will be returned to Turkey. Turkey and Greece, assisted by EU institutions and agencies, will take the necessary steps and agree any necessary bilateral arrangements, including the presence of Turkish officials on Greek islands and Greek officials in Turkey as from 20 March 2016, to ensure liaison and thereby facilitate the smooth functioning of these arrangements. The costs of the return operations of irregular migrants will be covered by the EU.

• For every Syrian being returned to Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU taking into account the UN Vulnerability Criteria. A mechanism will be established, with the assistance of the Commission, EU agencies and other Member States, as well as the UNHCR, to ensure that this principle will be implemented as from the same day the returns start. Priority will be given to migrants who have not previously entered or tried to enter the EU irregularly. On the EU side, resettlement under this mechanism will take place, in the first instance, by honouring the commitments taken by Member States in the conclusions of Representatives of the Governments of Member States meeting within the Council on 20 July 2015, of which 18.000 places for resettlement remain. Any further need for resettlement will be carried out through a similar voluntary arrangement up to a limit of an additional 54.000 persons. The Members of the European Council welcome the Commission’s intention to propose an amendment to the relocation decision of 22 September 2015 to allow for any resettlement commitment undertaken in the framework of this arrangement to be offset from non-allocated places under the decision. Should these arrangements not meet the objective of ending the irregular migration and the number of returns come close to the numbers provided for above, this mechanism will be reviewed. Should the number of returns exceed the numbers provided for above, this mechanism will be discontinued.

• Turkey will take any necessary measures to prevent new sea or land routes for illegal migration opening from Turkey to the EU, and will cooperate with neighbouring states as well as the EU to this effect.

• Once irregular crossings between Turkey and the EU are ending or at least have been substantially and sustainably reduced, a Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme will be activated. EU Member States will contribute on a voluntary basis to this scheme.

• The fulfilment of the visa liberalisation roadmap will be accelerated vis-à-vis all participating Member States with a view to lifting the visa requirements for Turkish citizens at the latest by the end of June 2016, provided that all benchmarks have been met. To this end Turkey will take the necessary steps to fulfil the remaining requirements to allow the Commission to make, following the required assessment of compliance with the benchmarks, an appropriate proposal by the end of April on the basis of which the European Parliament and the Council can make a final decision.

• The EU, in close cooperation with Turkey, will further speed up the disbursement of the initially allocated 3 billion euros under the Facility for Refugees in Turkey and ensure funding of further projects for persons under temporary protection identified with swift input from Turkey before the end of March. A first list of concrete projects for refugees, notably in the field of health, education, infrastructure, food and other living costs, that can be swiftly financed from the Facility, will be jointly identified within a week. Once these resources are about to be used to the full, and provided the above commitments are met, the EU will mobilise additional funding for the Facility of an additional 3 billion euro up to the end of 2018.

• The EU and Turkey welcomed the ongoing work on the upgrading of the Customs Union.

• The EU and Turkey reconfirmed their commitment to re-energise the accession process as set out in their joint statement of 29 November 2015. They welcomed the opening of Chapter 17 on 14 December 2015 and decided, as a next step, to open Chapter 33 during the Netherlands presidency. They welcomed that the Commission will put forward a proposal to this effect in April. Preparatory work for the opening of other Chapters will continue at an accelerated pace without prejudice to Member States’ positions in accordance with the existing rules.

• The EU and its Member States will work with Turkey in any joint endeavour to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria, in particular in certain areas near the Turkish border which would allow for the local population and refugees to live in areas which will be more safe.

Within the scope of the articles of the agreement, it is seen that important decisions have been taken to combat irregular migration movements especially towards Europe and to prevent loss of life. Europe saw this intense immigration wave, which numbered in the thousands, as a threat to itself and wanted to take precautions. In this context, it was decided that Turkey should take all measures for the new migration waves and cooperate with neighboring countries if necessary. However, it is planned to implement a series of practices in order to alleviate Turkey’s migrant burden. Accordingly, it is aimed to resettlement a certain number of Syrian refugees from Turkey to EU countries and to support Turkey financially.

Turkey’s Immigration Policies

As part of the resettlement, it was decided to return to Turkey all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands as of 20 March 2016. In return, for each irregular migrant to be returned to Turkey, it was decided to take a Syrian from Turkey. Within the scope of this resettlement, also known as the verbatim formula, two conditions were stipulated. Accordingly, those who have not previously applied illegal ways to pass from Turkey to Europe and those who comply with the UN Fragility Criteria are decided to be accepted.

These criteria give priority to groups such as disabled people, people in need of care and treatment, and women and girl children at risk. With the agreement, 72,000 people were planned to be resettled in accordance with the UN criteria. Within the scope of financial support, it was decided to put into use a fund of 6 billion Euros in total and to support projects that will improve the lives of Syrians in Turkey. Other regulations are aimed at regulating bilateral relations between Turkey and the EU. In this context, it was decided to bring visa exemption to Turkish citizens for EU countries, to revive the Turkey-EU full membership negotiations and to update the Customs Union.

According to the statement of the European Commission officials dated December 10, 2019, 4.3 billion euros of the total budget of 6 billion euros was committed to the projects deemed appropriate and 2.7 billion euros was paid. According to the European Commission, this budget financed 95 existing projects and more than 1.7 million refugees have benefited from these projects. Approximately 500 thousand refugee children have been provided with access to education. According to the announcement in December, ’25 additional projects were expected to be signed in a few months’. The statement said, “The first stage projects are expected to be completed in 2021 and the second stage is expected to be completed in 2025 at the latest”.

As can be seen from the explanations and applications, the European Union prefers to provide financial support on a project basis rather than in cash. In this way, it is aimed to monitor whether the financial support reaches its place or not. Turkish officials, on the other hand, criticize this practice and emphasize that aid should be provided in cash. Emphasizing the need to share the increasing socio-economic burden after the Syrian Crisis, Turkish officials criticize the European Union for not keeping its promises. However, statistics show that Turkey has largely fulfilled the requirements of the agreement. After the agreement, between the years of 2015-2017, as a result of the effective inspections of the elements of the Turkish Coast Guard Command and the security forces, irregular migration decreased by 85 percent and deaths at sea decreased by 95 percent. This number started to increase again in 2019 and saw the peak in 2020 after the tension between Turkey and the European Union.

The Turkish Minister of Internal Affairs shared the information that approximately 142 thousand people crossed into Greece via Edirne and Meriç after the border gates were opened in February and March 2020. Failure to keep mutual promises and not fulfill promises sometimes causes tension between the parties.

Turkey has declared that it cannot keep its border gates closed any longer, as the requirements of the 18 March Agreement are not fulfilled and a new wave of migration to emerge in Syria. Thereupon, border gates to Europe were opened by Turkey in February 2020, and thousands of refugees rushed to the border gates to cross into Europe. Refugees who crossed the border were mistreated by Greek soldiers and this situation was reflected in social media. However, the fact that visa liberalization has not been granted to Turkish citizens by 2021 is among the issues that have been criticized.

The reflection of the 18 March Agreement on Turkey’s immigration policies was mostly related to the social adaptation of Syrians. After the agreement, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Republic of Turkey Ministry of Interior Directorate General of Migration Management, in cooperation, has implemented the “Support Project for the Realization of Turkey’s National Harmonization Policy”. The funding of the project was provided by England and Switzerland.

In this cooperation, which is expected to last 15 months, it is envisaged that the “Harmonization Strategy Document” and the “National Action Plan” document will be prepared. However, since 2018, “Harmony Neighborhood Meetings”, “Harmony We Conversations,” “Harmony Meetings” activities have started to be carried out by the Directorate General of Migration Management. The purpose of these activities is to provide interaction between local people and migrants and support the adaptation process. In addition to all these developments, 2019 has been declared as the “Year of Compliance”. Concrete steps have been taken in many areas regarding migration policies, and national and local migration units have been established.

The 18 March Immigration Agreement And Its Effects On Turkey's Migration Policies
The 18 March Immigration Agreement And Its Effects On Turkey’s Migration Policies

One of the most important steps taken regarding social cohesion has been paving the way for Syrians to participate in working life since 2016. In 2016, the Regulation on Work Permits of Foreigners Under Temporary Protection was adopted. According to the provisions of the regulation, it has been stipulated that employees working under temporary protection cannot be paid less than the minimum wage. Participation of immigrants in employment is important for them to become self-sufficient individuals rather than individuals receiving social assistance. Employment is important in terms of social cohesion processes. Thus, it is aimed to ensure social cohesion at a certain rate.


Following the 2011 Syrian Crisis, Syria’s border neighbors, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, primarily Turkey, faced an intense immigration wave. Millions of Syrians fleeing internal conflicts in their countries have been living as refugees in other countries for 10 years as of 2021. Turkey provided necessary humanitarian aid to Syrians during this process. Europe began to feel the effects of the Syrian crisis as of 2014, when these people turned to Europe. Since 2014, an intense immigration wave has started towards Europe, and after this population mobility, Europe had to cooperate with Turkey. In this sense, the 18 March Immigration Agreement is important. In accordance with the terms of the memorandum, it was decided to share Turkey’s social and economic burden and to provide financial support in this context. On the other hand, it was decided that Turkey should increase its border security against irregular migration movements and improve the current situation of Syrians in the country. Thus, it was aimed for Syrians to stay in Turkey and to prevent the influx of refugees, which Europe considers a threat.

After the 18 March Agreement, significant changes took place in Turkey’s migration policies, and social integration of Syrians who were temporarily looked after began to be discussed. Projects implemented regarding the health, education, employment and housing conditions of Syrians have started to be financed by the EU, and hundreds of projects have been prepared by public authorities and non-governmental organizations. Within the scope of these projects, the adaptation of Syrians to working life, support of translators, support for entrepreneurship, and schooling of Syrian children were provided. According to the 2019-2020 data, the enrollment rate of Syrian children in primary school was 90 percent, in secondary school 70.13 percent, in high school 32.55 percent and the total schooling rate of the school age population was 63.29 percent. Registered Syrians are provided with free healthcare services from health institutions, special support for disadvantaged groups, social assistance and social support services.

Social integration processes are important because its practices help foreigners in the country adapt to that country in the long term. It is not easy for individuals to get used to a new society and life after forced migration. They are faced with problems such as discrimination and exclusion by the inhabitants of the places they go. Therefore, integration practices are important for both immigrants and residents. It is possible for the immigrants to attain a living level worthy of human dignity and to become self-sufficient individuals only after they are integrated into that society. In societies where integration practices are not realized sufficiently, tendencies of grouping, marginalization and committing crime among immigrants may increase in the long term. When all these are taken into consideration, it is seen that there is a need for comprehensive social policy implementations for foreigners in the country.

Research by Aylin Arslan