UN leads chorus of protest at EU plans to deport migrants en masse to Turkey.
UNHCR’s Regional Refugee Coordinator for the Refugee Crisis in Europe Vincent Cochetel. Photo: REUTERS
By Matthew Holehouse, Brussels
12:52PM GMT 08 Mar 2016
The European Union proposal to return tens of thousands of migrants en masse from Greece to Turkey is likely to violate international law, the UN said on Tuesday, as the grand bargain appeared to unravel.
Angela Merkel’s deal with Ankara to end the migrant flow across the Aegean faced serious criticism from her allies, who protested the offer of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens.
There are also grave doubts about how migrants determined to reach Western Europe could be forcibly removed in large numbers.
Under a deal provisionally agreed on Monday night, Turkey will accept the rapid return of any migrants who travel by boat to the Greek islands.
Syrian refugees onboard an overcrowded dinghy react as they arrive on a beach on the Greek island of Kos. Photo: REUTERS
In addition, for every Syrian removed from Greece to a Turkish refugee camp, one will be sent from Turkey directly to an EU state, in order to discourage illegal migration.
“Whoever comes illegally won’t then be among those who can come to Europe,” said Mrs Merkel. “At least not among the first, but rather they’ll have to join the end of the queue.”
David Cameron said the deal was a “breakthrough” in “ending the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe”.
But the plan was met with a chorus of protests from legal experts who warned it falls foul of a number of pieces of EU and international law, including that asylum seekers must have their cases assessed as individuals.
Another problem is that Turkey has signed deportation agreements with countries including Afghanistan, which have poor human rights records. That could breach laws that forbid refugees being sent back to war zones.
“The collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under the European Convention of Human Rights,” said Vincent Cochetel, a senior UNHCR official.
“An agreement that would be tantamount to a blanket return of any foreigners to a third country is not consistent with European law, is not consistent with international law.”
EU officials believe a clause in Turkish law that says it only grants refugee status to people fleeing trouble in Europe is highly problematic, with one source saying its lawyers divided 50-50 on whether it renders the deal permissible.
Turkey also has over five times the number of breaches of the EU Convention on Human Rights as other Balkan states, further raised questions as to its designation as a “safe” third country, said Professor Steve Peers, an expert in EU law at Essex University.
He said it was highly likely the scheme would be challenged by a migrant in the European courts in Strasbourg and Luxembourg.
Last night Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, said that Turkish and Greek law would need to be amended to make it compliant with the Geneva Convention on refugees. “But this is a matter of detail. The decision is legal.”
Doctors Without Borders said the European leaders had “completely lost track of reality”, while Human Rights Watch accused the summit of “using refugees as bargaining chips”.
But there are tentative signs of what officials are calling the “Australian” approach may be working. Just 728 people landed in Greece on Monday, compared to 2,500 a day in late February and 6,000 at the peak of the crisis in the Autumn. Some 153 were let into Austria .
The German interior ministry said that 61,000 people arrived in February, down from 91,000 in January.
Under the deal, Turkey will get €6 billion in aid and have five new chapters of its long-running membership talks with the EU opened.
If a series of qualifications are met, from June 70 million Turks will be able to travel to the Schengen zone for 90 days on holiday or six months on business without a visa.
But Markus Soeder, the Bavarian finance minister and a member of the CSU, allied to Mrs Merkel’s CDU, said he was “very sceptical” as visas and EU membership “will lead only to more immigration.”
The route north from Greece to Germany – all but sealed off at Macedonia – was tightened further as Slovenia announced it would only admit migrants carrying EU visas.
Greece has said it can shelter 70,000 people, double the number trapped in the country at the moment.