ATHENS, Greece -- On April 4, hundreds of migrants who arrived on the Greek islands in the past 10 days will be sent back across the Aegean Sea to Turkey, to the shores they departed from in hopes of finding refuge in Europe.
Monday’s returns will be the first deportations made as part of a controversial deal between Turkey and the European Union to halt migration flows to the continent, much to the outrage of humanitarian groups and the despair of migrants fleeing war and extreme poverty.
Human rights groups have said the deal may be illegal if refugees are not given fair opportunities to seek asylum, or are returned to countries where they will not be safe. Aid groups, humanitarian organizations and government officials have questioned whether the deal is even possible to implement practically; they doubt Greece’s capacity to fairly process thousands of asylum claims, house and return migrants, and send them back across the Aegean Sea, considering the country’s own dire financial crisis.
What is the gist of the agreement?
The majority of migrants who have traveled to Europe in recent months have done so via Turkey. In 2015 alone, 856,000 people from countries like Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece in rickety boats, hoping to continue their journey across the Macedonian border, through the Balkans and then onward to northern Europe.
According to the deal, Greece will send back migrants who arrive on its soil but do not apply for asylum, or whose asylum application is not accepted. For every Syrian who is sent back to Turkey, the EU will take in a Syrian who officially registered in a Turkish refugee camp. The politicians say their goal is to encourage people to use formal migration channels rather than the irregular routes to Europe, such as the dangerous sea crossings to Greece.
At the same time, Turkey agreed to make serious efforts to prevent irregular migration across the Aegean Sea, as well as via its land borders. Ankara and the EU are also expected to work closely together to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria, although it is unclear how they plan to accomplish that.
What is Turkey getting from this deal?
The European Union will speed up a payment of 3 billion euros, or $3.35 billion, to Turkey that it had previously pledged in order to aid refugees in the country. It offered another 3 billion euros by the end of 2018. Perhaps more importantly, the EU said it will facilitate the visa process for Turkish citizens' entrance into EU countries, and “re-energize” Turkey’s application to become a member of the union.
Is this plan legal?
Critics say the mass expulsion would violate EU regulations and the UN Refugee Convention, which mandates that countries who have signed it examine the application of all asylum seekers.
Technically the Turkey-EU plan allows migrants to file an asylum application. But as Patrick Kingsley explains over at The Guardian, there’s an important caveat. Greece can rule asylum applications “inadmissible” if the asylum seeker reached the country via a “safe third country.”
But there’s fierce disagreement over whether Turkey is a safe destination. Experts and human rights groups argue that migrants in Turkey face discrimination and mistreatment. Many aren’t able to work and therefore have no means to provide for their families. Amnesty International says Turkey rarely processes asylum requests and has forcibly returned Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans to their war-torn countries, in violation of refugee protections.
Several EU countries blocked a proposal for the EU to collectively recognize Turkey as a safe third country because of human rights concerns. On Friday, Greece's parliament voted on a bill regulating the asylum process that also did not grant Turkey this recognition.
Athens is facing a daunting task.
Suffering through its own economic and social crisis, Greece has been unable to adequately deal with the hundreds of thousands of people arriving on its shores. But it's now expected to handle much of the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal.
The new agreement requires Greece to detain migrants in closed centers after they arrive in the country, process asylum applications quickly on a “case by case” basis, and work with the EU and Turkey to send the migrants back.
“Across Greece, which has been compelled to host people because of closed borders elsewhere in Europe, numerous aspects of the systems for receiving and dealing with people who may need international protection are still either not working or absent,” the UN’s Refugee Agency warned on Friday. UNHCR says detention centers are filled beyond capacity, leading to food shortages, poor sanitation and a lack of accommodation. Asylum proceedings are slowed down by limited office hours and daily ceilings on registration, and some offices don't even have access to Skype.
Aid groups and international organizations have also questioned the legality of the approach.
Greece began arresting arriving migrants last week, and over 5,000 people are currently detained in registration centers on the Greek islands. Several international organizations that up till now have been crucial in helping Greek authorities deal with the influx have suspended or scaled back their operations to avoid being complicit in migrant detentions.
But Europe will surely come to Greece’s aid, right?
It has certainly promised to do so. The EU has allocated $332.5 million to support the country this year. The union vowed to provide Greece with material assistance to build the infrastructure it needs and sent personnel to implement the agreement.
The Associated Press reported on Thursday, however, that while deportations are set to start on Monday, most EU staff has not yet arrived on the Greek islands. Turkey, the EU and Greece also have yet to agree on a method to send people back.
EU countries have made a “voluntary commitment” to take in up to 72,000 refugees via the one-to-one exchange with Turkey. With more than 4 million Syrians in refugee camps across Turkey, aid agencies warn this falls far short of the real needs. Critics also worry that since the promise to take in migrants is non-binding, EU governments will be reluctant to live up to the agreement, given their security fears in the wake of the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks.
It is also worth noting that similar promises in the past were not met. European countries agreed last year to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers, including 66,400 out of Greece and 39,600 out of Italy. According to UNHCR, just 7,015 places had been made available by March 21. Only 953 asylum seekers had actually been relocated.
What about the 50,000 migrants who arrived in the country before the implementation of the deal?
They have been stranded since Balkan nations closed their borders in March, and 12,000 of them live in a muddy, squalid tent camp in the village of Idomeni near the Macedonian border. UNHCR says conditions in the camp are steadily worsening.
The Greek government has urged the migrants to leave the camp and instead seek shelter in government-run reception centers. Afraid of being sent back to Turkey, however, many have been unwilling to move. With just 38,000 available positions in reception centers, it is also unclear how the Greek government plans to accommodate them all.
Finally, while the agreement aspires to control and close the irregular migrant routes, it doesn’t address any of the problems that contribute to the creation of these flows.
Proponents of the deal argue that if Turkey plays its part in curbing the smuggling trade, Greece will not face the same number of migrant arrivals as it has in recent months. Yet it remains to be seen whether Turkey is able or even willing to control the trafficking rings operating on its soil.
Hundreds of migrants have continued to make the dangerous sea crossing to Greece in spite of the deal. According to data by UNHCR, an average of 300 people arrived at the Greek islands each day this week.
Experts also expect migrants to explore different routes more intensely. “There are many other routes that people can try. If the plan goes ahead, we can expect a rise in irregular migration towards Europe via other routes over the coming months, including via Bulgaria, Italy, Spain, perhaps even through the Black Sea towards Ukraine,” Patrick Kingsley told The WorldPost earlier this month.
“They will create different routes in other places, creating a big problem six months to a year down the line. We may appear to have cleared up the situation in the Aegean Sea, but then there will be another hot spot opening up somewhere else.”
Charlotte Alfred and Eline Gordts contributed to this report.