Tourism agencies, ticket offices and insurance offices are lined up on a street that leads the way to the final destination: Visa Application Centre. Nervous crowds gather in front of its door early in the morning with piles of paper under their arms, waiting to be called in for their appointment. Applying for a Schengen visa is a nerve-wracking procedure, often reflected in the applicants’ behaviour as understood by the signs on the walls of the centre: “Insulting and aggressive behaviour will not be tolerated”.
In order to get a Schengen Visa, one needs to apply through these third party application centres. The list of required documents is long. Moreover, as of 2014, EU rolled out a “visa information system” which is a Schengen-wide database compiled on exchanges of data of short term visa applications between authorities of the Schengen State. Applicants are required to submit their biometric data (i.e. fingerprints and a digital photo), taken at the Visa Application Centre. The EU’s borders extend till the centre of Istanbul.
It is estimated that currently around four million ethnic-Turks are living in Western Europe. The first generation migrated as a labour force in the 1960s and became permanent residents in the 1970s, contributing economically and culturally to Europe till this day. However, today around 700,000 Turkish citizens apply for short term Schengen visas either to visit with their families or for touristic purposes. They all go through above mentioned procedures – 5% of the applications get rejected, around 60% of them get a single entry visa and a lucky few get a multiple entry visa. The whole procedure makes one feel like a suspect, a criminal; and only the ones that get a Schengen visa are acquitted.
It is not just Turkey. There are 196 countries in the world; 28 of them are members of the European Union. From the remaining 168 countries, citizens of 120 countries need a Schengen visa. The list of 48 countries that have visa liberation agreements with Schengen is quite diverse; which makes Schengen’s border management system questionable.
The EU’s unjust visa policy for Turkey
Turkey shouldn’t have been among the 120 countries that need a Schengen visa. In 1963, Turkey and the European Economic Community signed the Ankara Agreement, which grants freedom of movement for Turkish citizens in Europe. However, the right to freedom of movement has not become a reality, and the agreement has been brought to the European Court of Justice. Moreover, Turkey is the only candidate country that has to get a visa to enter Europe. The EU has given the right to visa-free entry to all the other candidate country citizens. Furthermore, Western Balkan countries like Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia were granted visa-free travel in 2008, even before they were even official candidate countries.
The current visa policy applied to Turkish citizens contradicts the Ankara agreement and the EU’s founding treaties, legally speaking. It is against the EU’s principle of equal treatment, it is a case of double standards, and it is unjust. For over 50 years, Turkey and Turkey’s citizens have been suffering the consequences of the current visa scheme economically and culturally. There have been numerous attempts to solve this crisis, all of which have failed. However, things are expected to change soon for Turkey.
On 20th of July 2015, a Turkish border town to Syria, Suruç, was attacked by a suicide bomber who claimed to be a supporter of ISIS. The attack left 32 people dead and 104 people injured. It was a tipping point for Turkish, Kurdish and Syrian politics. After this attack, the de facto peace between Turkey and the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) was uplifted. The PKK started attacking Turkish officials and the Turkish army began terrorising Kurdish towns. And Syrians, saying that this was exactly how the war started back home, started fleeing from Turkey to Europe.
In the following months, Europe witnessed the greatest refugee influx since the Second World War. In August, 100,000; in September, 160,000; and in October, 200,000 refugees arrived to Greece via Turkey.
Meanwhile, in Turkey…
According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, between 16th August 2015 till 5th February 2016, seven cities in the East of Turkey have declared curfew for at least 58 times. Some curfews lasted more than ten days and some are have exceeded their 30th day and are currently ongoing. During this conflict, at least 224 civilians so far have lost their lives. 1,377,000 people have been affected by the curfew. Since June, 5000 people have been detained, 1000 people arrested – most of them are active in Kurdish politics. Party offices were attacked, including Green Party of Turkey’s office.
It has been claimed that people are seeking better lives and this has been the main reason for Syrian refugees were heading to Europe. It has also been claimed that Turkey was turning its back on the human trafficking happening at its shores, while some argued that nothing can stand in the way of those who decide to go. None of these claims fully explain why Syrian refugees started leaving Turkey after the four years they spent there, beside the one that claims Turkey’s east is becoming a war zone itself. Some eastern provinces were declared worse than Syria by international journalists who visited the region. Yet, with the readmission agreement, the EU effectively declares Turkey a “safe country of origin”.
Hope for progress is dwindling
Turkey-EU relations have been on hold for the last decade. One of the goals of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was to join the EU in 2002. When the accession negotiations opened in 2005, it was greeted with enthusiasm and hope. Back in 2005, public opinion favoured a European Union membership. However, within a few years the process stalled. The discussions were taking too long and enthusiasm on both sides began to wane. Even though, according to public opinion surveys, more than half of Turkish people still favour an EU membership, only a few of them have any hopes for accession.
The European Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, and human rights – the values that Turkish, Kurdish and Syrian people seek more than anything right now. This unexpected kindling of the relationship can be a step towards a better future for Turkey and for the people in the region.
However, in its current state, the European Union is bargaining over an enormous, international humanitarian crisis and trading one vested right of freedom of movement over another. The EU is constantly criticising Turkey’s failing efforts in its gatekeeping role; however, it has not made any comment on the human rights violations happening in Turkey. The European Union is turning a blind eye on the humanitarian crisis happening to avoid and to externalise this international crisis happening at its borders.
The European Commissioner in charge of immigration policy, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said: “Schengen is the greatest and most tangible achievement of European integration. But some policies are putting Schengen in danger. It is a difficult moment for Europe. Unfortunately, the European dream has vanished.”
This is true in many ways, but it does not need to be. As Ska Keller, Green Member of the European Parliament stated in her European Parliament speech on 8th October 2015: yes to a cooperation with the EU, and yes to credible accession negotiations with the EU, but no to these dirty deals on the backs of Syrian refugees; on the backs of Kurdish children.
 Even though the European Commission proposed a common EU list of safe countries of origin, which included Turkey, the deal in question declares Turkey a safe third country, not a safe country of origin.