The State of Migration Deals with Turkey – the View from Bulgaria

Pic RPavlova

By Radostina Pavlova,

The date 18 March 2017 marked the one-year anniversary of the EU-Turkey Statement,[1] commonly known as the “EU-Turkey deal”. The deal was meant to stem migration flows from Turkey towards Europe’s shores, offering Turkey in exchange visa liberalization in the foreseeable future and a financial injection in the amount of 3 billion euro.

A year later, the European Commission (EC) is congratulating itself with the success of the agreement,[2] and is evidently considering replicating the model with countries further from its immediate sea or land borders, along the so-called Central Mediterranean Route, such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria.[3] At the same time, watchdog organizations have deplored the pernicious effect the deal has had on migrants’ rights and well-being, and have called it shameful,[4] while the European Ombudsman has asked the EC to include in the progress reports on the implementation of the Statement “a separate section focusing on specific aspects of the implementation which carry significant risks for human rights compliance and on measures aimed at minimising the negative impact on human rights.”[5]

Meanwhile, with a referendum on constitutional changes increasing the president’s powers scheduled to take place in Turkey on 16 April 2017, the Turkish government has directed a number of verbal attacks at European country leaders or Europe as a whole, clearly intending to demonstrate its own might. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened,[6] first, to withdraw from the agreements with the EU in regards to refugees and migration, and, shortly after, Interior Minister Suleyman stated that Turkey could send 15,000 refugees per month to Europe, in a declared attempt to produce shock among Europeans.[7] The political reactions to Turkey’s provocative statement did not wait. In Bulgaria, the interim Minister of Defence declared on national TV that the government – also in pre-electoral mode at that moment – was prepared to step up the security measures at the Turkish border, including through sending army units, should an increased migration flow result from Turkey’s “annulment” of the refugee agreement,[8] and the Bulgarian “National Operational Headquarters to Address the Risks and Threats with Increased Migratory Pressure at the Borders” held its first meeting for the year on the same day.[9]

In this climate of fiery diplomatic exchanges and the “threat” of refugees used as weapon serving political goals, it is important to ask: What has been the actual effect of the EU-Turkey statement on migration flows into Bulgaria, the EU’s longest external land border to the south? Has it let to readmissions and deportations of migrants from Bulgaria to Turkey, and under what conditions? Are Turkey’s threats to “flood” Europe with refugees realistic and what would the consequences be, should it attempt to come through on them? Do the recent instances of using administrative law to return summarily Turkish citizens sought by the Turkish state conform to the law and due process?

What is EU-Turkey Statement about?

Contrary to what was stated or implied both in Turkey’s rhetoric and in the reactions to it, the “deal” does not prevent irregular migration – at least not directly, if we allow the hypothesis that it could serve as a deterrent to those planning to cross from Turkey to the Greek islands. The key points in the EU-Turkey Statement from 18 March 2016 are summarized as follows:[10]

  • All migrants crossing irregularly from Turkey to the Greek islands on and after 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey;
  • For every Syrian national returned in the above manner from the Greek islands to Turkey, another Syrian national will be resettled from Turkey to the EU;
  • Turkey will make efforts to prevent the opening of new routes from it to the EU;
  • Visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals travelling to the EU will be accelerated;
  • The EU and Turkey commit to “re-energizing” the latter’s accession process into the union;
  • The EU commits to a swift disbursement of 3 billion euro to build a Facility for Refugees in Turkey, and another 3 billion euro of additional funding for the Facility to be paid by the end of 2018.

The most recent report of the European Commission notes progress towards the above goals, recording a significant drop in the irregular crossings by sea from Turkey to Greece compared both to the previous reporting period and to the time before the agreement came into place.[11] It also points out, however, that arrival numbers remained much higher than the number of people returned, thus “putting pressure” on the hotspots on the Greek islands[12] – the closed-type centres where migrants are kept while their documents are processed and they are returned or transferred to the mainland.

Effect of the EU-Turkey Deal Implementation on Migration Flows into/through Bulgaria

With the signing and implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement, there were fears that it might lead to an increased number of migrants crossing by land into Bulgaria instead of by sea onto the Greek islands, as a logical alternative route into Europe. The weekly migration statistics on the number of persons apprehended while trying to enter or exist irregularly, or without documents on the interior of the country, published by the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior (MoI), show no such trend.

According to the MoI, in the first week of March 2016 a total of 212 foreign nationals were apprehended at entry, exit or on the interior of the country. During the week immediately preceding the application of the EU-Turkey statement, March 10-17 2016, that number was 121; in the week of the coming into force of the deal, 18-24 March, the number went down to 68, only to go up to 204 and 314 for the following weeks, respectively. By month, for March 2016 the total number was 766, and 1,394 for April 2016, a seasonal increase observed in previous years and likely due to the regular trend of increased migration flows as the weather warms up in spring.

Thus, the coming into force of the EU-Turkey deal from 18 March 2016 does not seem to have had a discernable effect on the size and pattern of irregular migration flows into or through Bulgaria. As to returns of migrants, Turkey had actually already been the top country to which such returns were carried out in the period 01.01.2012 to 28.04.2016, long before the EU-Turkey deal,[13] but of Turkish citizens and not irregularly crossing Syrians or other nationals, as shown below.

The Protocol from May 2016

In an apparent attempt to replicate the Greece’s ability to send back to Turkey irregularly crossing migrants – which would have effectively precluded access to European territory by land for the majority of migrants, including asylum seekers, as they are initially treated as irregular migrants by the Bulgarian authorities – in May 2016 the Bulgarian government signed a Protocol between the Government of the Republic of Bulgaria and the Government of the Republic of Turkey for the Application of the Agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Turkey on the Readmission of Persons Residing without Authorisation. The latter refers to an agreement signed between the EU and Turkey in December 2013 and in force from October 2014.[14]

The Protocol, as announced by the Bulgarian government, was meant to specify the procedures to return “irregular migrants” who are nationals not only of the two countries parties to the agreement, but of third-country nationals as well.[15] The returns of citizens of Turkey and of Bulgaria were arranged with bilateral agreement from 1967.[16] The Protocol itself, if adopted and applied, would neither confer any new powers to the Bulgarian state to effect returns, not augment in substance the human rights guarantees to both asylum seekers and migrants subject to return proceeding.

Upon signing, the two countries intended for the Protocol to be operational starting 1 June 2016.[17] From that date, the MoI duly started to publish statistics on “the application of the Agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Turkey on the Readmission of Persons Residing without Authorisation.”[18] In the week after the planned coming into force of the Protocol, the MoI announced that it had sent 100 requests to Turkey for the readmission of third-country nationals and 5 for Turkish nationals; of those, 4 were accepted by Turkey, all for Turkish nationals.[19] For the period 1 June 2016 – 23 September 2016, the MoI sent 807 requests for 1,059 persons to be returned to Turkey; of those, 41 were accepted and the persons actually returned.[20] According to an unofficial source from the MoI, commenting at a meeting that took place in July 2016, all of the individuals whose return Turkey had been accepted since the signing of the Protocol had been Turkish nationals.

The Protocol was, apparently, never ratified by the Turkish side, as reported in media[21] and confirmed in the 20 October 2016 response of the MoI to an Access to Information request filed by Center for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria, requesting the full text of the Protocol. The request was refused on the basis of the Turkish government never having concluded the procedures for its adoption, thus it could not be published in the Bulgarian State Gazette and was not in force at that point. The concern is that Bulgaria carrying out returns to Turkey without a regulation that specifies the procedural steps in detail – which, purportedly, the Protocol did[22] – could lead to grave violations of the migrants’ human rights as granted by international and EU law, including access to a fair procedure for international protection and non-refoulement, access to legal aid and interpretation.

Returns of Turkish Citizens Sought for Political Reasons

Several cases of returns to Turkey, which happened after the failed coup d’état there and the launch of a witch hunt of purported supporters of Fethullah Gülen, the exiled cleric framed as arch-enemy of the Turkish state by its president Erdoğan, are illustrative of the readiness of the Bulgarian government to forfeit due process in the name of complying with its neighbour’s demands to hand over Turkish citizens.

On 10 August 2016, the Bulgarian government returned to Turkey Abdullah Büyük, a businessman who had been living in the country for a long time.[23] Notable in this case is the fact that the Turkish state had sought – prior to the coup attempt from July 2016 – his extradition on charges of participation in a terrorist organization as an alleged Gülen supporter, but the Bulgarian courts, at two instances, deemed such extradition unlawful, as they did not believe he would be granted fair trail in Turkey.[24] His removal was effected not under criminal law as an extradition, but under the administrative provisions of the Law on the Foreigners in R. Bulgaria. In a “routine check”, the MoI authorities happened to stop a car in which Büyük was travelling in his “Mladost” neighbourhood in Sofia and arrested him for residing without proper documents, just a day after he had been issued a removal order.[25] His request for political asylum from the President – a procedure different in Bulgarian law from an application for refugee or humanitarian status, and in which a positive decision is given in very rare circumstances – had been turned down in the end of July 2016.[26] He was not given the opportunity prescribed by law to appeal the return order, which was signed by the director of the MoI Migration Directorate on August 9 2011, as he was effectively returned to Turkey within 24 hours from his arrest, and the Ombudsman was not informed about and present at the execution of the return decision, as is also required by law.[27]

In spite of the public outrage and the criticism by human rights organizations on account of Büyük’s return, only about two months later, in October 2017, the Bulgarian government returned summarily seven Turkish nationals, among whom academics and journalists, after only 24 hours on Bulgarian soil, which they spent in police custody.[28] They were all sought by the Turkish state as suspected “Gülenists”. The families of the Turkish citizens sent back to Turkey without due process or examination of the asylum claims they reportedly wanted to file, plan to sue the Bulgarian state before the European Court of Human Rights.[29]

Conclusion: Should We Fear Turkey’s Threats?

The EU-Turkey agreement cannot thus be considered to “protect” Bulgaria from increased irregular migration. Even if it relaxes any control it may be presently exercising on irregular border crossings, Turkey would not be able to fulfil its threat to unleash at will a wave of refugees onto Europe, let alone in controlled numbers. There are no “millions of migrants waiting at the border” as Bulgarian politicians like to say.

The 2.9 million Syrian refugees registered in Turkey as of 23 March 2017[30] who are granted temporary status there but not full refugee protection under the Geneva Convention, only need an exit permit from the Turkish government if they want to travel legally for the purpose of approved resettlement or family reunification.[31] They could, and many do, decide to travel towards Europe irregularly, but it is not the Turkish government that allows or manages these irregular movements. Worryingly, Turkey could decide to provide an “incentive” for the refugees residing in it to leave, to try fulfil its threats to “flood” Europe with migrants, which would come at a great human cost, as it would represent chasing out people back to war-torn countries, or sending them into a perilous journey to places where they will not be welcomed.

Before we judge solely Turkey, however, for the blatant disrespect of the humanity of the migrants it wanted to use as a living weapon, we should remember that it was the EU, by adopting the good refugee – bad refugee exchange in the EU-Turkey Statement from 18 March 2016 who set the example of trading in persons’ lives for the achievement of policy and political goals. This trade, as we witnessed, includes not only refugees, but journalists, academics and regular people at risk of political persecution in their own country, whose hopes of finding safety and freedom are also dashed.


[1] European Council, EU-Turkey Statement, Press release, 144/16, 18 March 2016, online:

[2] European Commission, Report on the Progress made in the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement, COM(2017) 204 final, Brussels, 2.3.2017, online:

[3] European Commission, Managing migration along the Central Mediterranean Route – Commission contributes to Malta discussion, Press release, 25 January 2017, online:

[4] See, for example, European Council of Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), “Op-Ed by Cavidan Soykan: The EU – Turkey Deal One Year On: The Rise of Walls of Shame”, 17.03.2017, online: and Oxfam, “The reality of the EU-Turkey statement”, 17.03.2017, online:, among many others.


[6] BBC, “Erdogan threatens to scrap EU-Turkey migrant deal”, 16 March 2017, online:

[7] EurActiv, “Turkey threatens to send Europe ‘15,000 refugees a month’”, 17 March 2017, online:

[8] Bulgarian National Television, 16 March 2017, online: (in Bulgarian).

[9] Ministry of Interior, News release from 16 March 2017, online: (in Bulgarian).

[10] See footnote 1 above.

[11] See footnote 2 above.

[12] Ibid., p.5

[13] Ministry of Interior, Response to Access to Information request by Center for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria, 16 May 2016.

[14] Official Journal of the European Union, L 134/3, online:

[15] Meeting of Minister of Interior Rumyana Bachvarova in Ankara with Turkish counterpart, as reported by the Bulgarian National Television, May 5 2016, online: (in Bulgarian).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ministry of Interior, Migration Statistics, online: (in Bulgarian)

[19] Ministry of Interior, online: (in Bulgarian).

[20] Ministry of Interior, online: (in Bulgarian).

[21] Dnevnik, “The Readmission Agreement with Turkey was Never Applied”, November 5 2016, online: (in Bulgarian).

[22] See footnote 15 above.

[23] Balkan Insight, “Bulgarians outraged at deportation of Gulen supporter to Turkey”, August 16 2016, online:

[24] EurActiv, “Bulgarians outraged by deportation of Gülen supporter to Turkey”, August 17 2016, online:

[25] 168 Hours, “MoI on the returned to Turkey Büyük: there is no deal, we sent him to his country and family”, online: (in Bulgarian).

[26], “Scandal with the handing of Büyük to the Turkish authorities”, August 12 2016, online: (in Bulgarian).

[27] Dnevnik, “The MoI returned to Turkey, at the edge of the law, a man considered a traitor there (summary), August 11 2016, online: (in Bulgarian).

[28] EurActiv, “Bulgaria returns alleged Gülenists to Turkey”, October 18 2016, online:; Dnevnik, “Bulgaria returned seven people to Turkey, who were met there as “Gülenists”, October 17 2016, online: (in Bulgarian).

[29] Actualno, “The relatives of seven Turkish citizen expulsed from Bulgaria will sue the country”, November 1 2016, online: (in Bulgarian).

[30] UNHCR, Syria Regional Refugee Response, online: accessed on 04.04.2016.

[31] Refugee Rights Turkey, Information Booklet on Registration and Status for Syrian Refugees and Other Persons under “Temporary Protection”, online: