Syrian refugees wait by the side of the road near the Turkish coastal town of Didim on March 9, 2016. 

(Brussels) – The European Union’s proposed deal with Turkey, announced on March 8, 2016, represents “a disturbing disregard for international law covering the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants,” Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth said in a letter to EU heads of state. Roth urged European leaders to reject the new elements of the EU’s Joint Action Plan with Turkey at the European Council on March 17-18.

The joint action plan would seek to stem migration and refugee flows from Turkey to Greece by instituting large-scale, fast-track returns of all “irregular migrants” crossing into the Greek islands from Turkey. It would also send irregularly arriving Syrians back to Turkey with the promise that for each Syrian readmitted by Turkey, an EU member state would agree to resettle another Syrian refugee from Turkey. The tentative agreement also includes a commitment for the EU to cooperate with Turkey in endeavors to establish so-called “safe areas” inside Syria.

Human Rights Watch took issue with all three points.

First, Roth pointed to a “contradiction at the heart of this plan” between fast-track large-scale returns – effectively collective expulsions, which are prohibited under the European Convention on Human Rights – and the need to determine that a person being returned does not need international protection. “EU and international refugee law requires that a claim for refugee status or subsidiary protection be given careful consideration, and that no one found to require such protection be forcibly returned,” Roth said in the letter, sent on March 14.

Second, exchanging a refugee to be resettled from inside Turkey for each Syrian asylum seeker returned from Greece to Turkey raises concerns. “We support dramatically increasing refugee resettlement from Turkey and other front-line states, and share the hope that this possibility will convince Syrian refugees that they can reside in safety and dignity in Turkey and other countries of first asylum pending a durable solution to their plight,” Roth said. “However, we caution against any suggestion of conditionality between refugee resettlement and the forced return of asylum seekers. Resettlement can be a very helpful supplement to asylum but can never be a substitute for the right to seek asylum.” 

Third, the EU proposal for a “joint endeavor to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria that would allow for the local population and refugees to live in areas which will be more safe” is dangerous, Human Rights Watch said. “The broader context of this agreement – to stem the migration flow to Europe – makes clear that this joint endeavor is not intended to genuinely protect Syrian civilians from harm, but rather to contain the flow of displaced people,” Roth said. “It is more likely to be a death trap than a place of sanctuary.”

Human Rights Watch also focused on the deteriorating human rights situation in Turkey. Roth said that Human Rights Watch is “deeply concerned that in the interests of securing the Joint Action Plan to stem the flow of refugees and migrants, the EU is willing to turn a blind-eye as Turkey’s president cracks down on human rights and dismantles Turkey’s democratic framework.”