Visa-free travel could see Turkish Kurds headed for Schengen area

Turkish coastguard officers were surprised last month to find Kurds from the violence-torn south-east of the country making the hazardous sea crossing to the Greek islands in search of asylum in the European Union.

If the visa requirement on Turkish citizens entering Europe's 26-member Schengen free-travel area is lifted at the end of June as planned, they will be able to spare themselves the trouble and the considerable expense.

Turkish Kurds will then be able to travel freely to most EU countries, particularly to Germany, where there is a large Kurdish community to welcome them.

A one-way air ticket from the Kurdish metropole of Diyarbakir to Berlin costs as little as 200 lira (70 dollars), a price that most Turks can readily afford and much less than what the people traffickers charge.

The visa deal is part of the recent package agreement on refugees, which will go into force provided Ankara meets 72 conditions.

More than half of these conditions, many concerning passport regulations, have already been dealt with, while the rest are hoped to be met by the end of May.

The paradoxical consequence of this agreement is that the EU could cut off the flow of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, only to be confronted with thousands of Kurds from Turkey.

Should the conflict between the Turkish security forces and the banned PKK Kurdistan Workers' Party escalate in the south-east, the numbers could swell rapidly

"People will want to go to safety in a flood," says Selahattin Demirtas, the chairman of the pro-Kurdish HDP opposition party. "Not only Kurds, but Turks as well could flee to Europe."

To date, those applying for a visa to the Schengen Area had to be able to convince the issuing authorities that they would return to Turkey.

If the requirement is lifted, travel for up to 90 days would be allowed, albeit without the right to reside or work in the area, which includes non-EU members Norway and Switzerland but excludes Britain and Ireland.

Many might well be prepared to try their luck by going to ground and working on the black market with the support of their countrymen already living in countries like Germany.

Opponents of the Turkish government could seek to escape political pressure by emigrating. According to the Justice Ministry, there are more than 1,800 legal cases pending for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The largest group could be Kurds fleeing the violence in south-eastern Turkey. They could seek asylum in Germany, particularly if they had not set foot in any other EU country on the way there.

Many Kurds in Diyarbakir are well aware of the planned changes. "Everyone will go to Germany," says Yuksel, a 43-year-old woman. One of her brothers is fighting with the PKK, two are in prison, and two have died in the fighting.

Mustafa Cukus, 51, who lost his 16-year-old daughter Rozerin to the fighting in Diyarbakir, says: "If I had the chance of going to Europe, I would go. I think everyone in my position would go."

According to government figures, more than 350,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in Turkey's Kurdish areas.

Gareth Jenkins, Turkey expert at the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy, believes that up to half a million Turkish refugees - primarily Kurds - could apply for asylum.

They would have less chance if EU countries were to stipulate that Turkey was a "safe country of origin," indicating that human rights are respected there, which Bulgaria does.

There is resistance among several EU countries to giving Turkey this status, however commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said he is in favour.

Jenkins remains sceptical that the visa requirement will be lifted. "I think Schengen will go first," he says. "I am sure there are some Schengen countries that would withdraw from Schengen before they would allow Turks to enter without visa."

The visa issue is key to the Turkish government in their dealings with the EU. Should Ankara feel it is has been cheated, the entire refugee deal could collapse.

Erdogan could then carry out his earlier threat to open the borders to refugees fleeing to the EU.

Last update: Fri, 25/03/2016 - 14:26

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