(Xinhua file photo)
ISTANBUL, March 20 (Xinhua) -- The Syrian refugee card that Turkey is playing to push the EU to grant visa-free travel for Turkish citizens risks failure, as many of the refugees choose to stay in Turkey instead of leaving for a hostile Europe, analysts here said.
"Even if the doors are opened (by Turkey), I don't think the refugees would flock to Europe in large numbers as was the case in the past," Metin Corabatir, president of the Ankara-based Research Center on Asylum and Migration, told Xinhua.
The Turkish government feels the EU has failed to honor a jointly-concluded refugee deal by not having so far granted Turkish citizens visa-free travel to the Schengen countries within the bloc.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu threatened last week to "blow the mind" of Europe by allowing 15,000 refugees to flock to Europe each month.
Turkey officially hosts around 3.6 million refugees, some 3.2 million of whom are Syrians.
Turkey inked the refugee pact with the EU in November 2015 to stop the illegal migration toward Europe in return for visa-free travel for its citizens, revival of its long-stalled accession talks and financial aid for refugees in Turkey.
"I feel many of the Syrians have already started to establish a life for themselves in Turkey," said Corabatir.
Noting it became clear in 2015 that Europe was not waiting for the refugees with open arms, he added, "Leaving for Europe would be a big risk for the refugees."
According to the UN refugee agency, a total of 844,000 refugees, the majority of whom Syrians, illegally migrated to Greece via Turkey in 2015. Some also illegally entered Greece and Bulgaria through the Turkish border in Thrace.
Many of the refugees made it to Germany, but had to face great hardships on their way due to cold weather, long walks and bad treatment at border passes.
Hundreds of refugees got drowned in the Aegean while trying to reach Greek islands. Some countries built fences to stop the refugees from entering their territories, with Bulgaria expected to complete in May a 270-km-long fence along the Turkish border to prevent illegal migration.
European politicians have felt threatened by the mass arrivals as anti-refugee sentiment has risen on the continent.
"Other than small groups, I don't expect there to be a big wave of migrants toward Europe any more," Murat Bilhan, deputy chairman of the Istanbul-based think tank Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies, told Xinhua.
Following the deal, irregular migration to Europe through Turkish shores has sharply fallen thanks largely to measures taken by Turkey along its Aegean coast and its border in Thrace.
Turkey expected the EU, based on the deal updated in March last year, to grant visa-free travel by last October, arguing that it had fulfilled all the 72 benchmarks required under the deal.
The EU argues, however, that there are still several benchmarks Turkey needs to meet, like narrowing the definition of terrorism in the criminal law.
Various reports penned by Turkish researchers in recent years have argued that many of the Syrians are here to stay.
Bilhan, the former diplomat, feels that a recent ban by some EU countries on campaign rallies by several Turkish cabinet ministers may well be linked to this fact about Syrians in Turkey.
The Syrians have managed in one way or another to scrape a living in Turkey and are well aware of Europe's negative attitude toward migrants, he noted.
Currently, 258,000 of the roughly 3.2 million Syrians in Turkey are hosted in camps in various cities, while the rest are left to their own devices.
The refugee issue was once again raised by Turkey last week following a spat with Germany and the Netherlands, two EU members that barred Turkish ministers from addressing Turkish immigrants ahead of a key referendum in Turkey.
Soylu's remarks came after Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that Turkey could cancel the refugee deal, accusing the EU of having failed to do its part.
"If there is no visa-free travel, we may cancel the migration deal," Cavusoglu said.
European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker denied in remarks to the German daily Bild am Sonntag on Sunday that the deal with Turkey exposed the EU to blackmail.
Juncker told the German daily that he was convinced Ankara would not rip off the deal because that was "not in Turkey's interests to have smuggling rings and bandits in charge along its coast."
Junker also reportedly said the refugee arrivals in Greece from Turkey diminished by 97 percent thanks to the deal.
Under the deal, Turkey agreed to get back all migrants who have illegally made it to Greece or Bulgaria via its territory, while the EU would admit the same number of refugees hosted in Turkey.
Turkey is no longer implementing the readmission agreement and will not implement the refugee agreement either unless the EU keeps its promises, Cavusoglu said.
Accusing the EU of stalling over the visa-free travel, Cavusoglu added, "We are using none of the trump cards in our hand as a threat."
Turkey's chief ombudsman Seref Malkoc said in January that some 80 percent of the Syrians should be expected to stay in Turkey, judging from data regarding refugee behavior in the world.
"The UN data tells us that 80 percent of those who fled their country in mass migration remain in the country they went to," Malkoc said.
It was also widely argued in the past years that many of the Syrians who already left for Europe were generally better qualified than those who remained in Turkey.
According to data released by Turkey's migration management organization, one third of the Syrians in Turkey are illiterate.
"Despite all shortcomings, Turkey is almost the only country that offers protection to Syrians," remarked Corabatir.
Both Corabatir and Bilhan think that asking Syrian refugees to go to Europe would be inhumane and that the interior minister's remarks are just rhetoric.
Devlet Bahceli, leader of Turkey's Nationalist Movement Party, also indirectly criticized the interior minister, saying Syrian refugees should not be treated as a weapon.
"That's not humane," he was quoted as saying by the Hurriyet daily.
When the EU delayed paying Turkey the sum of money to be spent on Syrians, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also warned back in February 2016 that Turkey could let Syrians leave for Greece by bus.
A couple of months before Erdogan's statement, a large number of Syrians were gathered in the Turkish city of Edirne on the Greek border. They were stopped by the government from leaving for Greece by bus in the end.
According to their deal, the EU is obliged to pay Turkey 3 billion euros (3.23 billion U.S. dollars) for the Syrians until the end of this year. So far, the bloc has actually paid about 700 million euros (753 million dollars), although a total of 2.2 billion euros (2.37 billion dollars) have been allocated to be used in projects regarding the refugees.
Turkey, for its part, is taking steps for the Syrians to be integrated into the Turkish society.
A total of 5,016 Syrians have so far been granted work permit by the Turkish government, while reports reveal that hundreds of thousands of Syrians are illegally working with very low wages.
Ankara is also preparing to grant citizenship to around 80,000 Syrians, roughly 20,000 families, following the referendum in April in which Turks will vote on whether to replace the country's parliamentarian system with an executive presidency.
Syrians in Turkey have set up some 5,000 businesses, according to data by last November unveiled by the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey.