25 March 2016

During the European Council meeting of 18 March, EU leaders reached an agreement with Turkey, the so-called EU-Turkey deal. According to the statement issued on the day, the objectives of the measures agreed to are to end irregular migration from Turkey to the EU and to “break the business model of the smugglers and to offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk”.

Prior to the meeting some of the action points agreed were described as “immoral”, “dangerous” and “illegal” by human rights organisations, including ECRE. These include the action point on the return to Turkey of all irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece after 20 March 2016 and the resettlement of one Syrian refugee from Turkey to the EU for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from Greece. The agreement also states that “Turkey will take any necessary measures to prevent new sea or land routes for illegal migration opening from Turkey to the EU, and will cooperate with neighbouring states as well as the EU to this effect.”

“Resettling one Syrian to the EU for every Syrian readmitted from the Greek islands to Turkey is as Kafkaesque as it is legally and morally wrong,” ECRE stated in a Memorandum issued before the European Council meeting. It argued that resettlement should not be part of an exchange which involves persons risking their lives; resettlement should be implemented separately from readmission and return. ECRE reiterates its opposition to any solution based on the flawed assumption that Turkey is a ‘safe third country’.

Amnesty International also called the idea that Turkey is a safe country a “sham”, while revealing that Turkey detained, denied access to asylum procedures and forcibly returned to Kabul around 30 Afghan asylum seekers just after the EU-Turkey deal came into force.

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks and UNHCR welcomed some of the legal safeguards contained in the agreement, such as the adherence to international and European laws, but stressed that its implementation needs to uphold human rights. UNHCR stressed that during the implementation of the deal, people seeking international protection must have an individual interview and the right to appeal a negative decision before readmission to Turkey. Once returned, people in need of international protection must be given the opportunity to seek and effectively access protection in Turkey, UNHCR stated.

According to the agreement, the focus of the hotspots on the Greek islands will shift from “registration and screening before swift transfer to the mainland” to “implementing returns to Turkey”, which includes increasing detention capacity in the facilities. Shortly after the agreement came into force and as the hotspots were being transformed into closed detention facilities, certain organisations suspended at least some of their activities in the centres, including UNHCR, MSF, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee and OXFAM.

“We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalized for a mass expulsion operation and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants,” stated Marie Elisabeth Ingres, MSF Head of Mission in Greece. 

Furthermore, immediately after the European Council meeting, the European Commission presented a proposal amending the Council Decision on relocation of 22 September 2015, making available for resettlement from Turkey the 54,000 yet unallocated places intended for relocation from Italy and Greece.

“Although the deal requires an individual assessment and access to an effective remedy for those claiming international protection, it is clear to everyone, including the EU institutions, that this is not yet the case in Greece”, said Catherine Woollard, ECRE’s Secretary General. “An effective remedy is simply not available as the Appeals Committees have not been operating since September 2015 and access to legal assistance is almost non-existent on the islands. This deal is legally and morally wrong and will not turn Turkey into a safe country. The EU should invest time and energy in large scale resettlement, implementing relocation, and support for Greece instead of short-sighted containment strategies”.

Further information:

This article will appear in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 25 March 2016. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.