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EU/Turkey: Mass, Fast-Track Returns Threaten Rights

Outline Deal Reveals Contradictory Positions on Refugee Protection

A Syrian family with children was forced by Macedonian security forces to remain in the no-man's land between Greece and Macedonia for five days without shelter after being caught trying to enter Macedonia irregularly. They were part of a group of 27. ©Zalmai for Human Rights Watch.

(Brussels) – The European Union outline deal with Turkey announced on March 8, 2016, contradicts EU principles guaranteeing the right to seek asylum and against collective expulsions. EU and Turkish leaders meeting in Brussels announced an agreement in principle to stem migration and refugee flows from Turkey to Greece, including massive returns of all “irregular migrants” crossing into the Greek islands from Turkey.

“A fundamental contradiction lies at the heart of the EU-Turkey deal taking shape,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The parties failed to say how individual needs for international protection would be fairly assessed during the rapid-fire mass expulsions they agreed would take place.” 

The agreement also says that every Syrian readmitted by Turkey would be offset by a Syrian resettled from Turkey to EU member states. This promise rests on an extremely weak foundation: by mid-January, fewer than 800 refugees had been resettled in Europe under a 2015 commitment by EU governments to resettle 22,500 refugees from various regions by the end of 2017.

Turkey cannot be regarded as a safe country of asylum for refugees from Syria, or for refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other non-European countries, according to a question-and-answer document published by Human Rights Watch in advance of the summit. Turkey has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention but is the only country in the world to apply a geographical limitation so that only Europeans can get refugee status there. It does not provide effective protection for refugees and has repeatedly pushed asylum seekers back to Syria.

“It is knowingly short-sighted for EU leaders to close their borders without considering the impact on Turkey’s borders with Syria,” said Frelick. “As EU and Turkish leaders were meeting in Brussels to agree on ways to stop ‘irregular’ migration to Greece, Turkey’s border remained closed to tens of thousands of Syrian asylum seekers fleeing the military offensive in Aleppo, exposing them to grave danger.”

The agreement includes a commitment for the EU to cooperate with Turkey in endeavors to establish so-called “safe areas” inside Syria. Human Rights Watch has warned that “the current situation in northern Syria makes clear that any ‘safe zone’ would be safe in name only and would put the lives of displaced people in danger.”  

The March 8, 2016 agreement has been touted as “a breakthrough” that will stop irregular boat migration in the Aegean Sea. An average of 2,500 people have made the crossing every day since a previous EU-Turkey agreement was struck in November 2015. The 12-hour meeting that began on March 7, 2016, ended with a broad political agreement, but leaders said the details would be determined at another summit scheduled for March 17. The EU is expected to double its aid package, to €6 billion, for health care, education, and other basic services for more than two million Syrian refugees already in Turkey, and ramp up political concessions to Turkey, such as easing visa restrictions for Turkish nationals and reviving talks on Turkish accession to the EU, in exchange for stepped-up efforts to curb migration and refugee flows to Europe.

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned regarding the deteriorating human rights situation in Turkey and urges the EU to address urgently these issues with Ankara.

“Refugees should not be used as bargaining chips,” Frelick said. “The integrity of the EU’s asylum system, indeed the integrity of European values, is at stake.”

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