“They said Turkey is a safe country for you, so you are rejected” from staying in Greece, 36-year-old “Ahmad,” from Syria, told me last Friday on Lesbos island. Ahmad risks being sent back to Turkey under a European Union deal signed in March 2016 to stem boat migration to Greece.
His words still haunt me. He spoke calmly, but the despair and anger in his eyes were obvious. How is it possible to reject someone’s right to safety and protection in just one sentence, I wondered?
Before coming to Greece, Ahmad spent two months in Turkey, where he tried unsuccessfully to register for temporary protection. This, in turn, led to him being denied access to health care for serious back pain because he lacked the necessary residence documents. Many Syrian refugees in Turkey can’t find lawful employment to support their families. They also can’t access health care and other services – like education for their children – that they desperately need. Their safety is precarious.
To carry out the EU deal, Greek authorities instituted a border procedure that may involve them forcing asylum seekers back to Turkey on the flawed premise that Greece and the EU don’t need to evaluate the individual protection needs of those arriving via the Aegean Sea. Rather, they falsely assume that Turkey is a safe country for asylum seekers.
“The most important thing during the interview was that the questions were all about Turkey. But I am not a Turkish man escaping Turkey. They should ask me about Syria instead,” Ahmad said. “I am not afraid of death. But I escaped from Syria to not hold a weapon and fight. I don’t want to be engaged in this war.”
Ahmad appealed his rejection from Greece, and is now awaiting this decision. On March 10, the Council of State, Greece’s highest administrative court, will hear the case of two other Syrian asylum seekers who are in a similar position. A key decision in a long legal battle over the fundamental unfairness of the EU-Turkey deal, the court’s ruling could pave the way for mass returns of Syrians like Ahmad to Turkey.
The EU-Turkey agreement has set a dangerous precedent by putting at risk the very principle of the right to seek refuge. When hearing these cases, the court should bear in mind what Ahmad and other Syrians have to say.