Europe’s migration deal with Turkey is unworkable and probably illegal

We can expect violent scenes as desperate people resist being returned to Turkey


It is 24 hours since the EU-Turkey Action Plan came into effect. While presented as a decisive response, the direction of policy is flawed from the start. As such, it will do little to stem the flow of desperate people seeking safety and sustenance in Europe.

At the end of 2015, there were nearly two million refugees in Turkey, of whom about 1.7 million were Syrian. Nearly 250,000 of this group live in camps. Other significant refugee groups in Turkey include Iraqis, Iranians and Afghans.

While they can be accurately described as refugees because they have fled violence and human rights abuse, many Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians are without UN refugee papers. Turkey has largely maintained a policy of non-refoulement (non-return) for Syrians, but it does not have functioning asylum application system, with immigration officers and legal charities to help endangered people make a claim.

Moreover, Turkey’s legal system only recognises as refugees those who have fled as a result of events in Europe.

Without papers, most refugees in Turkey live below the radar, and struggle to find work. This basic human right is at the root of onward movement to Europe, of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and other migrants stranded in Turkey.

The Action Plan proposes to return those crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands, unless the new arrivals apply for asylum and are given legal status in Greece. In return, EU member states have guaranteed to take Syrians on a one-for-one basis, up to a limit of 54,000 people on top of 18,000 the EU had already agree to take.

The plan is flawed in three respects.

First, it’s probably illegal. By placing Iraqis, Afghans and other non-Syrians returned to Turkey in danger of detention and return to their countries of origin, it almost certainly contravenes the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.  

Second, Greece does not have the capacity to deal with large numbers of asylum claims made in its territory. Over the last ten years there have been numerous legal cases that have highlighted the shortcomings of the Greek asylum system. Despite an overhaul and funds from the EU, backlogs still go back years and there are not enough immigration officers and translators to deal with new asylum claims.

While the EU has promised the Greek government 2,300 extra staff to deal with new asylum claims, it is not certain when they will arrive.

Third, the agreement to admit Syrians from Turkey on a one-for-one basis is not mandatory. There is no treaty or EU law to back up the resettlement plan. So far, no European government has signed up to admit a quota of the 54,000 potential arrivals. David Cameron has been noticeably silent about the resettlement scheme.

Given the total failure under a previous plan to relocate refugees from Greece and Italy to northern Europe, it is very likely that this new quota will not be honoured. In September 2015, the EU Council agreed to move 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy, but at the end of last week just 937 people had been relocated. The new resettlement scheme is likely to be face the same indifference and bureaucratic delays as the September 2015 resettlement plan.

The plan is unworkable. Migrants will continue to arrive by boat, as they have this weekend. They will continue to drown at sea. Desperate people will resist being returned to Turkey and we can expect violent scenes. Those who do claim asylum in Greece face being trapped in limbo for years, in an over-stretched system.

There are no simple answers to the refugee crisis. We did and still do have a role in some of the conflicts that have caused refugees to flee – from Iraq, for example. As a country that seeks to uphold human rights, we need to take responsibility for the human consequences of our actions.

Allowing migrants to work in Turkey would ease some of the pressures that cause onward movement to Greece. But growing numbers of people – in the UK and elsewhere in Europe – are calling for an effective resettlement scheme that has a basis in law.  

Why not release a quota of visas, a limited number every week, or by lottery, and allow refugees to fly to Europe in safety?

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.

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