Newly arrived families with children walk along the railway tracks from Serbia into Hungary, towards the Roszke collection point in Hungary where they will be taken in buses to temporary detention camps. September 8, 2015.

© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

(Brussels) – A European Union migration meeting set for October 8, 2015, looks set to focus yet again on shifting the EU governments' responsibilities toward refugees and asylum seekers to their neighbors, Human Rights Watch said today.

The October 8 High Level Conference on the Eastern Mediterranean-Western Balkans route is to include interior and foreign ministers from the EU member states, and Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. The stated aim of the meeting is to “increase solidarity with those bearing the brunt of refugee flows from Syria” and ensure “an orderly management of refugee and migration flows along the route.”

“This summit underscores what we have repeatedly witnessed, that EU governments see countries outside the EU as the answer to the crisis,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia division director at Human Rights Watch. “But Turkey already hosts nearly 2 million Syrians with temporary protection that doesn’t provide secure refugee status, while Serbia and Macedonia are manifestly incapable of dealing with the current numbers, even for short periods.”

Worthwhile efforts to build capacity in non-EU countries to fairly process and humanely host asylum seekers are a long-term effort, Human Rights Watch said. It should be seen as complementing EU efforts, not as a substitute for EU governments acting in line with their obligations under international and EU law.

The meeting comes amid growing concern that the EU wants to shift responsibility for asylum seekers to the Western Balkans and Turkey. A draft EU-Turkey Action Plan published on October 6 includes, “preventing uncontrolled migratory flows from Turkey to the EU” as a core objective. Hungary has already designated Serbia a safe third country and has begun summarily returning asylum seekers there.

The EU response to the refugee crisis has been limited and has primarily focused on strengthening the EU’s borders, keeping people in need of protection out, and combatting smuggler networks. On September 22, European Union interior ministers agreed to relocate 120,000 more asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to elsewhere in the EU, in addition to 40,000 agreed to in July. EU governments have also agreed to resettle a small number of refugees from outside the EU.

Before asking other countries to do more, EU governments should stress their own responsibility, including steps to improve asylum and reception conditions across member states, increased responsibility sharing, and offers of increased resettlement, Human Rights Watch said. The EU should also provide technical and financial support to increase the capacity of asylum systems in neighboring Western Balkan countries and to significantly increase humanitarian aid to Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.

The EU’s Western Balkans neighbors, notably Serbia and Macedonia, are unable to cope with the flows of asylum seekers and migrants, most of whom enter those countries via Greece, an EU member state. Human Rights Watch documented serious flaws in 2015 with Serbia’s asylum and reception system, which since 2008 has granted only 42 people international protection and failed to integrate those granted status.

Human Rights Watch also documented serious police abuse and extortion by police of asylum seekers and migrants. The Serbian government denies all allegations of abuse and has failed to effectively investigate the reports of police abuse, resulting in impunity for crimes against asylum seekers and migrants.

A September Human Rights Watch report on police abuse and ill-treatment of migrants and asylum seekers in Macedonia documented the dismal conditions and the serious ill-treatment of asylum seekers and migrants detained in the Gazi Baba immigration detention center in Skopje. Gazi Baba was closed for restoration work in June but the Interior Ministry has announced that it plans to use it in the future.

Amnesty International raised similar concerns about the treatment of migrants in the Western Balkans in July, and the United Nations Committee against Torture in May, Human Rights Watch said. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR), in its 2009 report on Serbia stated that it cannot be considered a safe third country to return asylum seekers to – a position UNHCR maintains.

The draft EU-Turkey Action Plan includes a series of measures aimed at, “Prevent[ing] further arrivals of irregular migrants to Turkey and irregular departures of refugees and migrants from Turkey to the EU.” This would be achieved through combating smuggling and increased border enforcement cooperation with EU member states Greece and Bulgaria, among other measures. The plan also includes much-needed assistance to Turkey to support its hosting of Syrian and Iraqi refugees and intensified search-and-rescue operations at sea.

“The Action Plan call to prevent arrivals of irregular migrants to Turkey could easily be interpreted as a signal that the EU would be willing to look the other way as Turkey prevents Syrians and Iraqis from crossing its border to seek asylum, so long as Turkey cooperates to stem the flow of asylum seekers into the EU,” Ward said.

While some elements of the plan are positive, Turkey cannot be considered a safe third country, Human Rights Watch said. It retains a geographical limitation of the 1951 Refugee Convention to refugees from Europe, making it impossible for Syrians, Afghans, or Iraqis to be granted refugee status in Turkey. While it has been generous in hosting Syrians under a temporary protection regime, the situation for non-Syrians is much more precarious, and even Syrians are protected as a matter of discretion rather than as a matter of law.

The absence of a functioning asylum system that is capable of providing refugee status to non-European refugees in Turkey also means that returns to Turkey of asylum seekers risk violating the principle of non-refoulement enshrined in the Refugee Convention, which prohibits the return of refugees “in any manner whatsoever” to places where their life or freedom would be threatened. This applies to indirect returns as well.

“While increasing aid to Turkey is much needed, any EU plans to turn Turkey, Serbia, and Macedonia into dumping grounds for asylum seekers would be deeply misguided and could put lives at risk,” Ward said. “There’s a lot the EU can do to help Turkey and the Western Balkans bring their asylum systems and reception conditions in line with international standards, but those improvements need to be made before they can be expected to take on more responsibility for asylum seekers.”