Greece wants to escalate the return of migrants to Turkey dramatically in the coming weeks under a European Union deal with Ankara, according to the Greek migration minister Panos Kammenos. The move comes amid criticism that it has been "too slow" to process them.
Officials say that there are around 8,400 migrants currently on Greek islands, nearly all of whom have expressed an interest in applying for asylum, thus overwhelming the system. In Chios, I interviewed the one caseworker available to process asylum claims; he has thousands of applicants, yet in April he was already awaiting much-needed assistance from the European Asylum Support Office (EASO).
The Balkan route lock-down preceded a supposed solution to the "refugee crisis" with the 18 March EU-Turkey deal, by stepping up monitoring and evaluation task forces, facilitating push-backs and "readmissions" of all post-March 20th arrivals. This is not a solution, nor is it actually working. As confirmed many times over by NGOs and officials in Europe alike, people-smuggling has increased, as has trafficking. The Balkan route is not actually closed; people now have to extend their irregular journey, paying extortionate amounts in the process, to get across Europe, putting the vulnerable at risk, in particular young women and children. It has been reported that they are victims of sexual exploitation "in return" for access to Europe from Greece; the same is true in Calais for access to Britain from France, claimed the Huffington Post recently.
Throughout the past month, protests have been taking place within the detention centres on the Greek islands. Tension boiled over because refugees have had their rights to international protection, dignified treatment and legal assistance misappropriated, whilst having no freedom of movement; they have been stranded since March. The food is awful and several incidents of food poisoning have been reported on the islands and in the port of Piraeus. Tents were set on fire in a protest in Moria camp, asylum offices were occupied by young children and NGO staff and UN representatives were evacuated. The camp houses at least 3,000 people — way beyond its official capacity — including young children, at risk from these rightful protests.
International NGOs and institutions as well as UN agencies have advocated the case for a more humane approach against the EU-Turkey deal, mainly on the grounds of its illegal deportations (many of those deported were either unaware or unable to apply for asylum; although some did), as well as closed detention centres. Further details have been reported by MEMO previously. On these, as well as political and moral grounds, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has declared that it is now refusing to accept any EU or member state support for its vital missions, "in protest at their shameful deterrence policies and their intensification of efforts to push people back from European shores." The charity received $63m (£44m) from the EU and its members last year.
Asylum seekers have been deported
According to the Greek government, 468 people have been deported to Turkey, none of whom had requested asylum. However, mistakes have been made and many of the deportees have since been confirmed as asylum seekers, making these deportations illegal. Furthermore, leaflets setting out the options for those arriving on Europe's shores on Chios and Lesvos are not translated into Urdu or other appropriate languages. This is intentional, as most Pakistani, Balochi, Bangladeshi or Indian refugees are regarded as "illegal", "irregular" or economic migrants, despite most of them fleeing from war, persecution and, as far as the Balochis are concerned, genocide. They should have the same access to apply for asylum as anyone else landing in Greece, but are not given it due to racist assumptions about their background and situation; this reflects the xenophobic, arbitrary and brutal manner in which the police handle those who are "seemingly Pakistani". Just two Syrian refugees have been ordered back to Turkey and they are appealing against the decision in the Greek courts.
The NGO Better Days for Moria has managed to provide legal help for the refugees on Lesvos together with Zainabiyya, Project Human, Mercy Corps and MSF. So far 149 cases have been filed, of which 20 have been successful, 84 are pending and none have been rejected, according to the charity's latest Facebook update. Cases have been successful in Idomeni, where several were filed against deportation of, amongst others, Syrian refugees, it was reported by independent legal NGO Advocates Abroad and The Guardian.
Upon arrival and registration, people receive documents that have serious translation limitations targeted at specific national/ethnic groups, such as the Pakistanis. This is a serious flaw which violates the responsibility of Europe to treat people according to the 1951 Refugee Convention as well as give them the ability to make informed decisions vis-a-vis their (albeit limited) options. EASO's Ewa Moncure explained that her agency "was told that the people being deported are not asylum seekers" but that they could not guarantee it, and outsourced responsibility again to the local Greek authorities; see MEMO's interview with Ewa Moncure here. I believe that this demonstrates what kind of buffer zone that Turkey and Greece operate for Europe so as not to accept its responsibility as a wealthy region, with colonial legacies from which people are fleeing and asking for basic humanitarian assistance and protection.
Despite the goal of relocating 160,000 people, only 937 have been relocated, while under the UNHCR resettlement initiative intended to help 20,000, only 4,555 have been resettled.1
The "readmission" of refugees is highly controversial, especially given that even UNHCR admits to having witnessed asylum seekers amongst those deported. Furthermore, EASO has been reported by Advocates Abroad to have prevented lawyers from seeing their clients within camps or pre-deportation centres.
Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas has said that Greece wants to send thousands of migrants back to Turkey within weeks if they do not qualify for asylum. "It would constitute failure if, within the next month-and-a-half, those who are obliged to leave the islands didn't do so," he told Greek television. Asked how many people this would apply to, Mouzalas said, "more than half" of the migrants currently there.
The reason why Turkey is not a "safe third country"
Under Article 35 of the European Asylum Directive Procedure (ADP) a country can be considered as a "first country of asylum" if the applicant "has been recognised in that country as a refugee and he or she can still avail himself/herself of that protection; or he or she otherwise enjoys sufficient protection in that country, including benefiting from the principle of non-refoulement."
Turkey has a geographical boundary derogation from the 1951 Refugee Convention and has not ratified its 1967 protocol, therefore is not bound to grant refugee status to non-Europeans. Asylum seekers are all non-Europeans.
- Syrians in Turkey: 90 per cent of the 3.1 million Syrian refugees in Turkey are living outside camps, without official protection or services. The UN estimates that half of them are children, and 74 per cent are not attending school.2
- According to the UNHCR, a "safe third country" designation only applies to states that do not produce refugees or where refugees have asylum privileges without danger.
- Outside of the 1-to-1 resettlement programme, 51 per cent3 of arrivals in Greece who are not Syrian remain unprotected against refoulement.
- Turkey's Foreign Affairs Ministry claims to maintain an "open door policy" between Syria and Turkey. However, the Turkish border has been closed and guards have shot at and injured refugees on its border with Syria4. Nearby camps, such as Kamouna near Sarmada in Idlib province5, hold people waiting to cross the border and suffer from deadly air strikes. The UN has warned that the situation could soon be "catastrophic" and could compel 400,000 more people to go to the border in search of refuge.
- Refugees and asylum-seekers have reportedly suffered abuse, police brutality and a lack of sufficient care and protection at the hands of the Turkish authorities.
- Even if Turkey was a "safe third country", it is unlawful to return asylum seekers against their will to another country, without assessing individual cases; such incidents have already been recorded and appealed against successfully.6
The crisis need serious re-framing and introspection
Financial institutions such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have all emphasised the need to re-frame the "migrant scare/crisis" as they estimate that if "rapid integration into the labour market" will have proper and timely investment in Europe — under the correct policies reflecting humanity and solidarity — the GNP will increase with an estimated 0.25 per cent by 2020, and not the "burden" that Europe is claimed to have. The UN's Michael Møller said, "We need migrants, just to keep our economies going." 7 The OECD and UNHCR stressed both the moral imperative as well as the clear economic incentive to help the millions of refugees living in OECD countries "to develop the skills they need to work productively and safely in the jobs of tomorrow." 8
According to the EU, though, deportation "makes sense" for national and regional security and stability. However, terminology and plans to bring migration "under control" are examples of their appropriation of the idea of an innate threat towards difference and diversity (normally associated with xenophobia) and the constructed forecast of being overrun by "incompatible people"; this misses the point that we are all human
beings. It also pushes away any historical links to migrant-producing countries, such as colonialism and imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The partition of India in 1947, with all the bloody events surrounding it, is still remembered by some of the Pakistanis in Greek camps. Britain created the biggest mass migration in human history, displacing over 14 million people9; divisions and discrimination towards long-standing minorities on the land allocated to Pakistan, such as the Balochis, and the current genocide against them, are why they end up on the shores of Greece today.
Thus, rather than calling the current situation a crisis of people, we need to call it a crisis of the system that allows this to happen in Europe in 2016. Links to migrant-producing countries need to be scrutinised and political leaders must be held accountable. Media and advocacy groups must improve their cooperation. Furthermore, civil society seems to be carrying the burden of the unmanaged situation and the results of Europe's unwillingness to accept that the situation asks for way more than a near-impossible turning of the tide, even as a first step in the process. The crisis demands a sophisticated system of controlled migration that allows migration to happen, rather than creating fear, bordering on xenophobia and vigilantism, as we have witnessed thus far.
1 Numbers from independent lawyer from primo May 2016.
2 European Commission. April 2016. Turkey: Refugee Crisis. http://ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/turkey_syrian_crisis_en.pdf
3 UNHCR Emergency Response: http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/country.php?id=83
4 HRW. 2016.Turkey: Border Guards Kill and Injure Asylum Seekers. https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/05/10/turkey-border-guards-kill-and-injure-asylum-seekers
5 BBC.2016. Syria conflict: Air strike on refugee camp 'kills 28'http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36214290
6 The Guardian. 2016. Syrian refugee wins appeal against forced return to Turkey. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/20/syrian-refugee-wins-appeal-against-forced-return-to-turkey
7 Huffington Post. 2016; UN's Michael Møller Reveals 17 Facts That Will Change Your Understanding Of The Refugee Crisis http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/refugee-crisis-facts-un-michael-moller_uk_5734277ee4b01359f6866db0
8 OECD. 2016.OECD and UNHCR call for scaling up integration policies in favour of refugees http://www.oecd.org/migration/oecd-and-unhcr-call-for-scaling-up-integration-policies-in-favour-of-refugees.htm
9 UNHCR. 2000. 3 Rupture in South Asia http://www.unhcr.org/3ebf9bab0.pdf
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.