Turkey’s weaponisation of the refugee crisis

refugee crisis

By: Nina de Martin

Picture credits: Ggia – wikimediacommons


The 14th of May 2023 will mark a pivotal day for Turkey and Europe as a whole. It could be either the dawn of a new era or the beginning of continuity: it is the day that Turkish citizens will head to the ballots to decide the future of their country. For nineteen years, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) ruled undefeated thanks to a two-party coalition. In the summer of 2022, approval for AKP leader and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fell to 41.2%, the lowest it has been since the beginning of his administration in 2014. The president’s grip on power, further tightened by the 2016 coup-d’état, seems seriously threatened for the first time in nineteen years. An inordinately imperative inquiry is thus raised: what will the future look like for Turkey? Furthermore, given the close geopolitical relations Ankara has cultivated with the West, the aforementioned events will have remarkable impacts on Europe’s already brittle balance. As the continent’s security equilibrium shifted dramatically with the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, so has the role of Turkey. It has gained a newfound role as a mediator between Russia and the West. This position has been compiled over another authoritative role given to Turkey in 2016, being the gatekeeper of Middle Eastern migrants attempting to reach the European Union. Ankara has instrumentalised refugees as a political weapon, consolidating a potent place in European affairs and allowing Erdoğan to demand status after decades of Turkish isolation. This weaponised approach to foreign policy indicates that it is crucial, now more than ever, to understand the role that Turkey plays in regional geopolitics.

The outcome of the election cannot be predicted, but political polarisation is expected to intensify across the country. Turkey has recently undergone significant events, namely the 7.8 Mw earthquake which hit the country on the 6th of February 2023. This occurrence has, and will further, impact the already declining economy which has suffered a severe currency crisis and elevated inflation rate due to the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the very same pandemic-induced economic crisis that encouraged Erdoğan to break away from isolation to further foreign investments, as his assertive foreign policy in the East Mediterranean increased intense regional competition. External events have also greatly impacted the balance of the country: in the last two decades, Turkey became the host of the largest refugee population in the world. The United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees cites that almost four million refugees inhabit the country under temporary protection. The migration crisis occurring in Turkey has led to worrisome humanitarian crises, whilst also burdening the country’s fragile economy and disrupting affiliations with the EU. In order to explore how the socio-political situation in Turkey has and will challenge the West, it is imperative to understand the intricate weaponisation of the immigration crisis which impacts significant aspects of Turkish foreign policy. 


Migration is a significant factor in framing the impacts of security relations. In an increasingly globalised world, safety and security discourses grow to be more intricate and multi-actor. Turkey provided an example of this, where the government has historically lacked effective policies, leading to migrants being seen as a security threat to national stability. It adopted three different approaches: sending (emigration of Turks to Europe), receiving (asylum seekers in Turkey) and transitioning (pathway through the Mediterranean to Europe). Furthermore, Ankara’s approach to the securitisation of migration has been dictated by economic interests, hence raising the claim that Erdoğan has weaponised the migration crisis. Turkey began assuming legal responsibility for asylum seekers in the post-World War Two era because of the fear of the “communist threat” that spread throughout Europe. This obligation was ratified during the 1951 Geneva Convention, but migration flows would only increase in the early 1980s due to the country’s geographical positioning. The Iranian Revolution, the Gulf War, and the end of the Cold War rendered the country a transit zone. Unprepared for the sudden increase and unequipped with effective migration policies, migration began to be viewed as a security threat.

The role of globalisation and the increasing interconnectedness between societies cannot be understated. With the development and rapid spread of transport and communication technologies in the early 1980s, Turkey’s newfound status as a transit country was merely a result of the changing nature of the world around it. For example, the Gulf War waged in 1990-1991 marked the first mass influx in the country. The geographic positioning of Turkey makes it susceptible to receiving incoming refugees, and between the 1980s and 2000, nearly two and a half million refugees were documented to have entered Turkey. A crucial factor that aided the AKP in reaching power in 2002, was that refugee influxes remained to be perceived as a security threat, and effective policies were not yet developed. 

The AKP captured the voters’ majority in the 2002 elections. The party found itself with the responsibility to reform the country’s failing economy, hence pursuing (unsuccessful) campaigns to enter the European Union. Legal changes were implemented which attempted to address neglected problems such as forced migration policies that were aimed at defeating Kurdish guerrilla movements. Erdoğan’s party began to position itself as a “gatekeeper” of the European borders. However, this aim conflicted with the AKP neo-conservative approach to domestic governance. A process of “religious othering” was instigated throughout the country, meaning that non-Islamic religions were targeted in order to reconstitute Turkish identity through Islamic sentiments. Therefore, not only were effective migration policies failed to be addressed, but integration deteriorated. 


In 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s presidency began. A year later, the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis was reached. The EU-Turkey migration agreement was negotiated in 2015-2016, endorsing the role of Turkey as Europe’s gatekeeper. The deal allowed Erdoğan to keep one foot in, and one foot out, of the European geopolitical landscape. Turkey has obtained several advantages from this, such as lifted visa requirements and a six billion euro aid for hosting newcomer Syrian refugees. Furthermore, the EU implicitly recognised Turkey as a safe country. To be recognised as a safe country, four characteristics must be met. First, the country must not produce its own refugees (forced internal displacement). Second, it must be a country where refugees request asylum. Third, no persecution, torture or degrading treatment must take place in the country. Lastly, it must respect the principle of non-refoulement (not returning refugees to countries where they had previously been prosecuted). According to some, the Turkish state is currently struggling to meet these criteria

The ability of the AKP to exploit migration was rendered further evident when the president threatened to “open the doors of Europe”’ to migrants after receiving backlash for a large offensive in northern Syria in 2019. The party has often relied on the crisis as an effective discourse tool, allowing Erdoğan to claim moral superiority over the EU due to his human-centred open-door policy as well as revitalising Ottoman sentiments. Therefore, by 2020, the country hosted around three and a half million Syrians and more than 320,000 non-Syrians. The Turkish president was thus allowed to point out that Europe, the leading human rights promoter of the 21st century, lost its monopoly over moral superiority. Erdoğan instrumentalised the migration crisis to damage the legitimacy of the European Union. The reason why said instrumentalisation has been successful for Erdoğan is that European leaders tended to show a pattern of xenophobia and hysteria about migration issues instead of concern over legal and humanitarian responsibilities. Refugees failed to be addressed as a group at risk. This “European hypocrisy” handed the AKP the political weapon that refugees have become. However, rather than viewing these failures as strengths of the Turkish State, they can be seen as weaknesses of European governance of ideals. 


With one foot in, and one foot out, in European politics, Erdoğan was able to implement his “balancing policy”. Acting as a “gatekeeper” allowed tensions with the EU to be resolved, thanks to the 2016 agreement stating that all unauthorised migrants crossing the Greek border will be returned to Ankara. Furthermore, a two-state solution to the Cyprus crisis is encouraged by the Turkish leader, and tensions over unauthorised drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean are being eased. Turkey, greatly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, returned as a key player in the international political landscape as a method of bettering the country’s damaged economy. Erdoğan’s role as mediator has been further enhanced during the Ukrainian war. Examples of said mediating approach include Russo-Ukrainian talks being held in Ankara in March 2022, alongside the refusal to implement sanctions on Moscow due to reliance on Russian trade deals, whilst importing weapons to the Ukrainian forces. Erdoğan instrumentalised the war through his “balancing policy”. The Turkish President continues to uphold his migration deal with the EU, hosting Afghan refugees following the 2021 Taliban takeover and continuing to welcome Syrian asylum seekers. 

Erdoğan has weaponised the refugee crisis, gaining domestic support through Islamic moral sentiments as well as gaining moral status through the failure of the EU to uphold human rights. How Turkey’s role as a mediator will impact the economy remains to be seen, especially following the devastating February earthquake which will increase refugee flows from Syria and lead to high rates of internal displacement. The elections mark a significant milestone for Turkey, and the potential end of nineteen years of AKP leadership will greatly impact the European Union. Due to the aforementioned domestic and regional occurrences, the migration deal hangs on a fragile balance. Following the increase of displacement within the continent caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it cannot be denied that the EU requires more effective migration policies rather than relying on the weaponised approach that Turkey has been exploiting through its gained role as mediator.  


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