Ambassador's Speech at the EPP Group Presidency and Heads of the National Delegations Meeting Athens

Kerim Uras 07.03.2013
Dear Speaker, Minister, prominent speakers, Members of the European Parliament.

It is a privilege for me to be with you this evening.

The Group of the European People’s Party has a prominent role in shaping the policies of the European Union.

I take this meeting as an important opportunity to exchange our views.

I believe misperceptions and stereotypes are major obstacles standing before the improvement of Turkey-EU relations, and through open and sincere dialogue, there is no doubt that we can move forward.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As you know, illegal migration has adverse social, political and economic repercussions that become more visible in an environment of economic crisis.

Like many other developed countries, Greece is facing complex problems emanating from this social phenomenon.

As Turkey we have no doubt in our minds that illegal migration must be combated, economic migrants must be sent back their homes and the smugglers must be brought to justice.

It is, however, an indisputable fact that tackling this problem is out of reach of any single country and requires serious and active bilateral and international cooperation.

In this context, I would like to focus on the efforts of Turkey and the cooperation between Turkey and Greece to combat this scourge.

First of all, allow me to correct a widespread misunderstanding: Turkey itself is not the source of illegal migration. In other words, it is not Turkish citizens that use these routes. It is third country nationals. Turkey is located on the transit route of illegal migration and has become a target country due to its vigorous economic growth of around %10 per year especially in recent years.

Consequently, Turkey suffers from this phenomenon, and illegal migration has similar negative effects upon the public and social order within Turkish society.

It goes without saying that first we should put our own garden in order to fight against this phenomenon.

To this effect, we have improved our administrative and legislative framework. An Umbrella Council among competent Turkish authorities was established in order to overcome shortcomings in local coordination. The number and sheltering capacity of the Return Centers have been increased. Training programs for personnel of these centers were organized, and a more efficient internal inspection system was instituted.

Furthermore, with amendments introduced to the Penal Code in 2010, attempts of human smuggling were also defined as a “full crime”, which increased the deterrence of the Penal Code, particularly for smugglers. The amendment increased the duration of the sentence to an amount that will be half to 2/3 longer than the usual sentence time, when the crime puts the life of victims in danger and is committed in an inhuman manner.

Steps are being taken for an integrated border management system and the draft Law on Foreigners and International Protection is on the agenda of the Parliament which will meet most of the requirements regarding migration management.

In parallel to these regulations, efforts on the ground have also been intensified. In the last 16 years almost one million illegal migrants and 13 thousand human smugglers were apprehended by Turkish security forces.

The efforts of the Turkish Coast Guard, together with the Greek Coast Guard and Frontex, have played a decisive role in decreasing the illegal migration flow by %70 through the Aegean Sea, which is no more an important transit route for illegal migrants. We are aware of the recent increase in the Aegean in the last months of 2012 (1.110 in 2011; 2960 in 2012) and increased patrol duties. However, the figures are very low compared to couple of years ago.

Efforts have been intensified on the common land border with Greece and close cooperation have been established with the relevant Greek authorities. Since the commencement of the Xenios Zeus operation in August 2012, the number of illegal migrants detained on the land border has decreased 95 %, from 35.258 thousand to 1.710. Those figures also demonstrate that guarding the Greek side of the border is essential to stop the illegal flow.

We will not cease to work until the figure drops to zero. This is an ambitious target and in all fairness, is not feasible if not strengthened with a further technologically advanced and well funded comprehensive international cooperation program. We must also not forget that combating illegal migration must also be strengthened in our problematic Easter borders. Indeed, we are increasing our technological and watch station presence there too.

With this understanding, we consider the Readmission Protocol with Greece as a significant tool in displaying our joint deterrence. The opening of the Dikili/İzmir Readmission Sea Port in 2010 has played an important role in decreasing the number of illegal migrant flow through the Aegean Sea.

Our cooperation has gained new momentum with the signing of the Joint Declaration between the Interior Ministry of the Republic of Turkey and the Citizen Protection Ministry of the Hellenic Republic in May 2010. We maintain this momentum and signed the “Joint Declaration On Enhancing Cooperation In The Field Of Illegal Migration and Readmission” during the second High Level Cooperation Council Meeting held in Istanbul three days ago on 4 March 2013

The frequency of meetings between Turkish and Greek authorities reflects the level of intense cooperation without any doubt.

Competent Turkish and Greek authorities convened more than fifteen times at local and central levels since May 2010. Through these meetings, direct lines of communication have been established between local and central law enforcement agencies of the two countries. There is regular telephone and e-mail communication between Turkish and Greek authorities to coordinate common efforts. Contact persons have been assigned between the Turkish Armed Forces in the Evros region and their Greek counterparts, in order to coordinate their operations.

We are also willing to improve our cooperation with other EU countries that are facing the same problem, as well as with the European Commission. We emphasize our determination to cooperate against the illegal migration on every occasion.

Furthermore, we are ready to increase the number of common projects with the EU and initiate programs among transit and destination countries that are located on migration routes.

We believe that close cooperation with the EU will become an efficient deterrent factor to illegal migration flow towards our region. We initialed the Cooperation Memorandum with Frontex on 15 March 2012, and our contacts continue to establish close cooperation with this agency.

Turkey will host the 5th Ministerial Conference of the Budapest Process in Istanbul on 19 April 2013. It will be a good occasion to discuss migration management issues and to bring together source and destination countries.

At this point, it is also necessary to distinguish between the illegal migration flow and the visa requirement. We must bear in mind that illegal migrants do not respect visas, passport formalities or borders.

Despite our every effort, unfortunately a trickle of illegal migrants find ways to overcome our measures and enter the EU. This proves that, visas are not much of an obstacle in that sense. Visas only deter “bona fide” travelers and spending tourists from coming to Greece or other EU countries and contributing to the economy.

With this understanding, we are strongly in favor of securing visa exemption to Turkish citizens. Such a step would also be a breakthrough and a “game changer” in the EU-Turkey relations.

As a reflection of our goodwill and determination, we have initialed the Turkey-EU Readmission Agreement. However, the requirements of visa liberalization and Readmission Agreement should not result in shouldering the EU immigration policy by Turkey. The signature of the Agreement will depend on the formal submission by the EU of a Road Map which will meet our concerns for visa exemption.

The Road Map to be presented to Turkey should be free from any political considerations. It should be a well-defined technical document. Implementation phases of visa exemption and the Agreement should also be simultaneous.

We must also keep in mind that, abolishing visas for Turkey would result in an alignement of our visa systems, and this would help combating illegal migration further to the East.

In that respect, I’ll also like refer to claims arguing that third country national fly to İstanbul without getting a visa, drive to Edirne and cross the border thus exploiting Turkey’s liberal visa regime.

According to figure issued by the Hellenic Ministry of Public order and Citizen Protection, origins of illegal migrants are as follows in 2012: Afghanistan (15.985), Pakistan (10.740), Albania (9.751), Bangladesh (7.749), Syria (7.563). Those five countries are on top of the list and constitute 70 % of total migrants entered into Greece.

However, Afghans need to obtain visa to travel to Turkey. Likewise, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are subject to visa. They can get visa at the port of entry, only if they have valid Schengen, US, British, or an OECD member country visa.

It is reported that illegal Albania migrants are mostly crossing through the Greek – Albanian border; therefore, it is not an issue related to the Turkish – Greek border.

In terms of Syria, there is an humanitarian crisis going on in this country. As a neighboring country that has cultural, historical, and human bond, it is out of consideration for turkey to turn its back to Syrian civilians who are fleeing from brutal conflict. Turkey is already hosting more than 200 thousands Syrians in Turkey and providing all necessary services to those people all alone. The increase in the number of Syrian migrants emanates from the crisis in Syria and is a complex sui generis matter, to which we must generate unique solutions together.

In light of the above, it is unfounded to claim that the flow of illegal migrants to Greece is linked to Turkey’s visa regime.

I believe that we must continue to work earnestly and patiently to combat and end illegal migration. It is a dynamic phenomenon. The culprits are constantly finding ways to overcome the obstacles we throw in their way.

If we sincerely want to deal with illegal migration we should, in the first place, fully understand that the illegal migration is an international problem, and international cooperation is needed to combat it. Finger pointing is a zero gain policy.

As Turkey, we are ready to further improve our cooperation both with Greece and with the EU to tackle this issue.

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