Aid organizations have voiced concern over the humanitarian implications of Friday’s agreement between the European Union and Turkey, aimed at stopping the flow of refugees and migrants entering Europe via Greece’s Aegean islands.
Under the new deal, which came into effect on Sunday, all migrants arriving in Greece will be sent back to Turkey if they do not apply for asylum or if their claim is rejected, with actual returns starting April 4. For every Syrian returned to Turkey, a Syrian migrant already in Turkey will be resettled in the EU, with the total figure capped at 72,000. The “one-in-one-out” plan aims to deter migrants from attempting the sea crossing with the aid of people smugglers.
In particular, questions remain over Greece’s ability to effectively and accurately process large numbers of migrants and refugees. The country is already struggling to cope with an estimated 48,000 people who entered Greece before the deal was brokered and now remain stranded in the country, including 12,000 at Idomeni on the Greece-Macedonia border.
“At present, Greece does not have sufficient capacity on the islands for assessing asylum claims, nor the proper conditions to accommodate people decently and safely pending an examination of their cases,” spokeswoman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Melissa Fleming said in Geneva on Tuesday.
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Prior to the deal, UNHCR was assisting with the registration of new arrivals at five “hotspots” on the islands of Chios, Lesbos, Samos, Leros and Kos. According to Fleming, these sites have now become “detention facilities,” and UNHCR has suspended its activities at the centers in line with its policy of opposing mandatory detention. The organization will continue to maintain a presence on the islands, however, “to ensure that refugee and human rights standards are upheld, and to provide information on the rights and procedures to seek asylum,” said Fleming.
The International Rescue Committee meanwhile expressed fears that “sending people back to Turkey without a proper asylum process capable of assessing them on the basis of individual need risks flouting international law.”
Some organizations have also voiced concern over whether Turkey is able to fulfill the requirement of a “safe third country” as outlined in EU asylum law.
According to the European Commission, EU member states, the European Asylum Support Office and Frontex — the EU agency that coordinates European border management in line with the EU fundamental rights charter — have agreed to send 4,000 staff to Greece in the form of border guards, asylum experts and interpreters. In addition, 267 million euros ($296 million) of funding — more than half of the total refugee emergency assistance budget for this year — has been earmarked for Greece, an aspect of the deal that IRC called a “welcome move.”
A particularly controversial component of the deal is the agreement to “re-energize” the EU accession process for Turkey and lift visa requirements for Turkish citizens entering the EU bloc by the end of June this year. Oxfam’s migration policy lead, Sara Tesorieri, compared this to “trading human beings for political concessions,” while Aurélie Ponthieu, humanitarian adviser on displacement at Médecins Sans Frontières, stressed that humanitarian assistance “should be based on needs, not on political agendas.”
“At present, Greece does not have sufficient capacity on the islands for assessing asylum claims, nor the proper conditions to accommodate people decently and safely pending an examination of their cases.”— Melissa Fleming, UNHCR spokesperson
Under the terms of the deal, Turkey will also receive 6 billion euros of EU money until 2018 for providing refugees inside the country with education, health care and food.
A lack of clarity remains over the method by which people will be returned to Turkey and the process of relocation of refugees from Greece to other European countries. The European Commission has said it plans to achieve 6,000 relocations within the next month and at least 20,000 by mid-May 2016. UNHCR data shows more than 1,800 migrants arrived in the Greek islands during the first two days of the new arrangement, many of whom were unaware of the high-level political decisions that had been made about their futures.
“On the ground in Lesbos we’ve had no direct information from decision makers on what the implementation of this deal will look like,” ActionAid’s head of advocacy Barry Johnston told Devex. “You have individuals who have fled for their lives from war who are staying in tents and on beaches on islands off the coast of Turkey seeking safe haven and refuge, and we’re not able to tell them what tomorrow holds.”
Crucially, many organizations doubt that the plan will act as a deterrent to migrants trying to reach Europe.
“Before the ink is dry on the Turkey deal, people are talking about Libya,” said ActionAid’s Johnston, referring to the route from North Africa through the Strait of Sicily. The Aegean route has until now been the most commonly used, especially by Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi migrants, with arrivals numbering nearly 150,000 so far this year, including over 70,000 Syrians, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration. IRC fears the closure of the route will encourage migrants to seek out more dangerous alternatives.
“Far from creating safe and legal routes for Syrians and other refugees to reach Europe, this deal does the opposite,” the organization said in a statement.
Humanitarian organizations are appealing for more legal routes to resettlement, with IRC repeating its call for Europe to take in 108,000 refugees per year for five years. ActionAid’s Johnston called the 72,000 figure “a drop in the ocean” compared with the numbers of refugees shouldered by Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey itself. There are currently over 3.1 million refugees registered in Turkey, 2.9 million of whom are Syrians, according to the European Commission.
Devex London correspondent Molly Anders contributed reporting.
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