In the absence of safe and legal routes into Europe, hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants have travelled irregularly over the last few years, at considerable risk to their own lives. This has undeniably confronted European leaders with logistical, political and humanitarian challenges. With isolated exceptions European leaders have largely failed to meet them. The dramatic scenes that saw a million refugees and migrants cross the continent prompted a backlash that continues to echo resoundingly, prompting a raft of measures increasingly focused on blocking future arrivals. Solidarity between EU member states and solidarity with a record global number of refugees has been in short supply.
Rather than creating a bold, orderly system providing safe avenues for people to seek protection in Europe, European leaders have increasingly focused on blocking borders and negotiating with human rights violating governments to stop them coming.
The EU-Turkey deal, agreed in March last year was Europe’s signature response to these challenges. It has certainly stemmed the flow of migrants across the Aegean, but at considerable cost to Europe’s commitment to upholding the basic principles of refugee protection and the lives of the tens of thousands it has trapped on Greek islands. With European leaders touting its success, closing their eyes to its flaws, and seeing in it a blueprint for new migration deals with countries like Libya, Sudan, Niger and many others, this briefing serves as a cautionary tale.
As the number of irregular arrivals from Turkey to Greek islands surpassed half a million in October 2015, political pressure from the EU on Turkey to halt the irregular crossings of refugees and migrants grew. The initial result was a joint EU-Turkey action plan adopted on 29 November, in which Turkey committed to step up the country’s efforts to curb irregular departures to the EU, cooperate with EU member states to apply relevant readmission agreements and return those deemed not in need of international protection to their countries of origin. For its part, the EU promised to allocate 3 billion Euros to improve the humanitarian situation of Syrian refugees in the country.
The migration-related cooperation between Turkey and the EU culminated in a statement (henceforth, the EU-Turkey deal) on 18 March 2016. In essence it was simple. The deal aimed to return every person arriving irregularly on the Greek islands – including asylum-seekers - back to Turkey, while EU member states agreed to take one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every Syrian returned back to the country from the Greek islands. Returnees were to include not only migrants, but also those in need of international protection on the untrue, but wilfully ignored, premise that Turkey is a safe country for refugees and asylum-seekers.
The deal was not without its positives: it retained the commitment to significant financial assistance to the support of refugees in Turkey. It also promised, albeit vaguely, that a “Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme” for Syrians would be activated once irregular crossings between Turkey and the EU had ended or have been substantially and sustainably reduced. While this scheme is yet to be developed, only 2,935 Syrian refugees have been resettled from Turkey to EU member states (including, Norway and Sweden) as of 17 January 2017.
Although life-saving for refugees concerned, this remains negligible compared to over 2.8 million Syrians struggling in Turkey. Ever since the deal was struck, the efforts of the Greek authorities and EU agencies operating on the Greek islands have been geared towards ensuring the swift return of refugees and migrants to Turkey. Overnight, from 19 to 20 March 2016, reception facilities on the islands were transformed into detention centres. Over the next few months, the Greek Government introduced changes to its asylum procedures and asylum applications began to be rejected at first instance under a fast-track procedure; many of them were rejected without assessment of their merits on the assumption that Turkey is a safe country for asylum-seekers and refugees.
While the strict detention regime set up in the immediate aftermath of the deal was legally and practically unsustainable, asylum seekers are still not allowed to leave the islands despite deteriorating conditions. The hope persists that returns to Turkey, to date blocked by Greek Appeals Committees and currently delayed pending a decision by the Greek Council of State, will start soon. In the meantime, only 865 out of the over 27,000 people who had arrived as of 17 January 2017, have been returned to Turkey. Some 4,500 have been transferred to mainland Greece; some 5,000 remain inexplicably unaccounted for. Some 15,000 refugees and migrants remain in limbo, trapped in appalling conditions and short of hope. What the deal’s backers would herald as success – their ultimate return to Turkey, would, in reality, be dark day for refugee protection in Europe.
While the material conditions on the islands could, certainly, be improved – and urgently need to be, this will not address the deal’s central flaw. Asylum-seekers should not be sent back to a country that is, currently at least, unable to guarantee access to an adequate protection status and adequate living conditions. The EU can legitimately seek to assist Turkey to meet these conditions, but it is callous in the extreme, and a straight-forward violation of international law, to construct an entire migration policy around the pretence that this is currently the case.
For so long as it is not, the EU should be working with the Greek authorities to transfer those on the islands that cannot lawfully and promptly be returned to Turkey or their countries of origin to mainland Greece, for the prompt and proper processing of their cases, with a view to their transfer to other EU countries through the relocation scheme, family reunification or humanitarian visas.
While the European Commission claims the deal has “showed that international cooperation can succeed” and “its elements can inspire cooperation with other key third countries,” this briefing shows the human rights costs of the deal, including arbitrary detention, inhuman and degrading conditions and violations of the refugee convention, are too great to be repeated elsewhere.