By Harriet Salem
Greece is now scrambling to implement a new deal between European leaders and Ankara that will likely see thousands of migrants and refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other poor and war-torn countries deported back to Turkey.
As Europe’s migrant crisis continues unabated, VICE News spoke with international aid and human rights groups about why the deal is both impractical and unethical.
Turkey Isn’t a Safe Third Country
The key premise of the new agreement that all “irregular migrants,” including asylum seekers, will be sent back to Turkey has been widely criticized by human rights activists, who say the country has a poor track record on refugee rights.
Turkey currently hosts some 2.7 million refugees but is not fully signed up to the UN Refugee Convention and rights groups have documented multiple violations of asylum seekers rights, including forcible returns of Syrian and Afghan refugees.
“The whole deal rests on the assumption that Turkey is a safe-third country, which is not the case,” said Gauri Van Gulik, deputy Europe director at Amnesty International.
A case in point, just hours after the deal came into effect at midnight on March 20, Amnesty documented the case of a group of Afghans who said they were forced to sign documents by the Turkish authorities and board a plane back to Kabul.
Under the new agreement, all migrants who arrived after the deadline will technically still have the opportunity to make an asylum claim in Europe. Yet the deal says that their claim can be rejected as “inadmissible” if they have arrived from a “safe-third country” or a “first country” where they receive “sufficient protection.”
Related: Investigating the Fatal Sinking of a Refugee Boat and the Brutal Treatment of Those Who Survived
As the vast majority of migrants have come to Europe via Turkey — which is expected to soon be officially recognized by Greece as a safe country for asylum seekers despite the concerns of rights groups — that effectively means there is likely to be a blanket deportation of all new arrivals.
“[It seems that] rather than assess asylum claim on their merits, they’re going to use an inadmissible reasoning, that is return to safe third country, as a loophole to send people back,” said Bill Frelick, refugee program director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s in keeping with the letter of the law, but not the spirit of it.”
No official date has yet been set for the start of deportations, but Greece has said that it expects the agreement to be “fully implemented” from April 4.
“Europe is just closing its eyes to this problem and attempting to outsource it to Turkey,” said Gulik.
Greece Is Already Overwhelmed
Around 50,000 migrants, the majority of whom arrived prior to the start of the EU-Turkey deal, are stuck in Greece after the so-called “Balkan Route,” used by hundreds of thousands of people to walk through Europe over the last year, was slammed shut earlier this month.
While the Greek government has requested an additional 2,300 European experts — including migration officers, translators, and soldiers — to help with operations, the support has so far been slow to materialize.
The delay has turned official camps on Greek islands, being used to process migrants that arrived after the March 20 deadline for the EU-Turkey deal, into de-facto detention centers.
The system for registering new arrivals was described to VICE News as ‘Kafka-esque bullshit’
The system for registering new arrivals at the island facilities was described to VICE News as “Kafka-esque bullshit” with not enough properly trained staff to facilitate the processing of asylum claims. “Dozens of registration interviews have been repeatedly delayed and people are getting more and more frustrated,” the anonymous source, who is familiar with official procedures inside the camp, added.
Last week medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)announced it was pulling out of working in the largest of the island camps, Moria, as people were effectively being detained there against their will and where there are now daily protests.
“We made the extremely difficult decision to end our activities in Moria because continuing to work inside would make us complicit in a system we consider to be both unfair and inhumane,” said Marie Elisabeth Ingres, MSF head of mission in Greece said in a statement.
“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.”
Related: Europe’s Migrant Crisis Is a Crisis of Conscience, Whether Leaders Admit It or Not
Last week, the UN refugee protection agency (UNHCR) also withdrew some of its services to Moria, including bus transfers that took migrants to the camp.
“Accordingly, and in line with our policy on opposing mandatory detention, we have suspended some of our activities at all closed centres on the islands,” Melissa Fleming, a UNHCR spokesperson said of the decision. “However, UNHCR will maintain a presence to carry out protection monitoring to ensure that refugee and human rights standards are upheld, and to provide information on the rights and procedures to seek asylum.”
Meanwhile, back on mainland Greece, the authorities are struggling to expand a network of camps to accommodate the growing backlog. Currently more than 10,000 people, including thousands of women and children, are living in squalid conditions in Idomeni, an unofficial camp on the Greece-Macedonia border, while another 4,000 or so are camped in a large tent city at the port in Athens.
A separate Europe-wide resettlement program — for asylum seekers who arrived before the deal came into place and whose claims are accepted — is also making painfully slow progress amid bickering between countries over quotas.
‘Closed borders are smugglers’ gold’
Fahd, from Raqqa in Syria, told VICE News that he had tried to call the relocation Skype hotline to discuss his family’s application several times, but no one ever answered the phone. “When I tried to visit the [UNHCR] office in person they just told me they couldn’t help and to keep trying the Skype number,” he added.
So far less than 1,000 relocations have actually taken place under the scheme, and Poland recently said it was reconsidering its offer to take 7,000 refugees following the terror attacks on Brussels.
“There’s not enough information out there for people to be sure what’s happening, and not enough ways they can really ask questions and get clarification,” said Matt Abud, project director at Internews EU Refugee Response. “People simply don’t know what their possibilities are, or if they do hear about options like relocation in the EU or asylum in Greece, they often don’t know the conditions or limitations on those options who’s eligible, who’s not, how long it takes and so on.”
It Won’t Stop People Coming
Since the deal came into effect more than 3,000 migrants have arrived by boat on the Greek islands. As people are currently unable to move on, and deportations have not yet begun, this means the overall number of migrants stranded in Greece is increasing every day — rising from around 30,000 people to more than 50,000 since Macedonia stopped allowing irregular crossings from Greece last month.
In Idomeni camp multiple migrants told VICE News about smugglers offering to take them across the nearby Greece-Macedonian border, with prices ranging from 200 euros ($227) to 2,500 euros depending on the final destination.
“Closed borders are smugglers’ gold,” said Lucy Carrigan, senior communications officer for the International Rescue Committee in Greece. “Nobody is saying that it should be a free for all, but we need options that are legal and safe. What we have now is a system that doesn’t provide those options, that means these desperate people, who are fleeing war, will look at taking more dangerous measures to reach Europe.”
Another route that may be used is mountainous land trek across the Greece-Albania border, followed by either a boat to Italy or a slalom of border crossings through the Balkans.
“Ultimately the current situation will mean payday for smugglers and Europe will not achieve its objective of keeping people out, its a lose-lose,” said Amnesty’s Gulik.
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem – Vice News