In Europe’s drama with refugees, few twists in the plot have been predictable. In 2015, as the war in Syria raged on, 1.3m migrants applied for asylum in the European Union, surpassing previous records. The number of people crossing the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece was predicted to fall at the end of that summer, but instead continued to rise precipitously. A last-minute deal struck between the EU and Turkey in March 2016, which required refugees to be sent back to Turkey to have their asylum applications processed there, also took many by surprise. Even more unexpectedly, it appeared at first to deter new arrivals: the numbers landing in Greece dropped from around 55,000 in February 2016 to just over 3,400 in August.
In 2017 the number of people making their way to Europe will not reach the heights of 2015 or 2016. But with an upsurge in populist parties across the continent and an increasingly fractious government in Turkey, the journey will become even more fraught with difficulty. More refugees will risk even more dangerous or unpredictable routes to safety and many will face harsher treatment along the way.
First, the current arrangements concerning migrants will deteriorate. Despite the EU-Turkey deal, around 50,000 migrants remain stuck in camps in Greece, rather than being sent back to Turkey. Most of these camps are heaving with people: in September, thousands fled an overcrowded facility in Lesbos after rioting erupted and a fire swept through the camp.
As winter sets in, migrants will become more restless. Fights will break out; some refugees will go on hunger strike. Meanwhile the number of deaths on the route between Libya and Italy will keep rising.
Second, the Turkish government will become far trickier to deal with. As part of the deal Turkey was promised visa-free travel for some of its citizens, provided it meets certain criteria on cracking down on corruption, issuing biometric passports and reforming its broad anti-terror laws. In October these conditions still had not been met, partly because the government was busy prosecuting 60,000 people it accused of being part of an attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July. The delay on the visa waiver has angered the Turks, who have threatened to jettison the deal. If that happens, then Greece may start letting refugees out of camps to make the journey (with the help of smugglers) through the Balkans to Germany, creating further chaos along the route.
Third, domestic pressures in Europe will stop politicians from doing things that need to be done. A lot more work, for example, will be necessary to ensure refugees can be resettled directly from Turkey to the rest of Europe, and many more interpreters and asylum officials will be required in Greece, Italy and elsewhere. But both Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who has emphasised the need to help refugees in Europe, and FranÇois Hollande, the French president, will be too busy fighting elections to tackle these problems without the help of others. That help will not be forthcoming: governments in eastern Europe refuse to take any refugees at all, while anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise in Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy.
Such a grim scenario could just about be avoided if the right diplomatic measures were put in place. For the EU-Turkey deal to work, Turkey would need to be seen as a safe country for refugees to return to, says Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank. And more European countries would have to start resettling refugees directly from Turkey, which could enable an unpopular forced-relocation scheme to be scrapped. But neither of these things looks likely to happen in 2017, to the shame of the EU and the politicians who initially opened their arms to those fleeing barrel bombs.