The deal followed Greece’s neighbours closing their borders, and the country turned into a holding space for thousands of children, women and men.
Below are five reasons why the deal never should have come into effect.
First reason: The rights of the refugees are in jeopardy
Since 1951 the European Union has championed refugee law and promoted it on many occasions throughout the world. The day it became needed inside the EU is the day it decided to ignore its very principle and the necessity to share responsibilities: that was 6 months ago. An international convention is meant to protect people in times of crisis and to force or remind signatory States of their legal and moral obligations towards protected populations. For refugees, this has been applied everywhere more or less successfully, until it reached the borders of the European Union.
The EU/Turkey deal is putting at risk the very principle of the right to seek refuge. The responsibility to ensure this and protecting those in need of protection should be collective and not only shared among neighboring countries. The wider repercussions of the approach to close European borders and expect neighboring countries take on the main responsibility should not be underestimated.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for Europe to ask refugee-hosting countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, to keep their doors open, to host large-scale refugee populations and prevent further movements, while at the same time EU Member States refuse to shoulder their fair share of responsibility for protecting people who flee their homes. The right to asylum is being significantly undermined, and it will become more and more challenging for civilians in conflict zones to seek international protection. "I am 26 years old. I don't want to die. If I go home to Kabul they will kill me" [26-year-old Afghan man who arrived after 20 March and thus may be returned to Turkey].
According to UNHCR the total number of readmissions to Turkey from Greece as of 11 September was 5021 . This is a lower number than expected. Civil society cannot fully assess whether the rights of refugees and migrants are being upheld both prior to and after return to Turkey as timely access to information on this is challenging. The refugees and migrants NRC staff interact with express fear of what will happen if returned to Turkey, if they will be detained there, and if it means onwards return to their country of origin.
Second reason: There is not sufficient capacity to ensure fair asylum hearings
An ongoing humanitarian protection gap identified by NRC is legal information, counselling and assistance.
The EU-Turkey deal promises that all those arriving to Greece get a fair asylum hearing. In addition to a sufficient number of trained staff with the Greek Asylum Service and support staff from European member states, a fair asylum hearing also encompasses access to impartial and neutral legal information and understanding one's options; counselling and preparation in advance of interviews and legal assistance for any appeals processes.
Best interest and medical assessments, including for unaccompanied children or victims of torture and gender based violence is a gap, so is specialised legal information for children, older persons or those with mental health issues. All information should be developed according to humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality, in reality what may be perceived as sensitive information, such as why Syrians are prioritized for interviews before Afghans, is not explained. Information is often provided orally, and refugees and migrants express deep frustration that they feel they get a different answer depending on whom they ask. "They give us information we don't need. What will happen with us Afghans? How long do we have to wait?" [Afghan male, 37 years old].
NRC welcomes a recent legal aid programme funded by the European Commission implemented through UNHCR and local partners. However, it is not realistic to believe that the 26 lawyers deployed to six islands and six lawyers for the mainland, in addition to a few other legal projects by NGOs and volunteers, is sufficient to cover the legal needs of 13,080 people on islands and 46756 on the mainland – thousands of people who all need various degree of legal information, individual counselling and assistance.
Third reason: Asylum seekers are kept in detention
When the hotspot on Chios was turned into a closed detention facility NRC expressed serious concerns at the detention of refugees and migrants. A positive development over the last six months is that the majority of new arrivals are no longer detained. Those who arrived after 20 March are nevertheless not allowed to leave the islands unless they get a special permission.
The number of people arriving in Greece drastically reduced over the last six months, however, thousands of children, men and women still continue to make the hazardous journey. Over the past four months approximately 90002 refugees and migrants crossed the sea. When discussing reception conditions, the deteriorating security in sites and the mental health of the refugees and migrants cannot be overlooked. There are security threats and violence, gender and sexual based violence; self-harming among minors, hunger strikes and suicide attempts. "I find myself writing the wrong date, I write 2011 because that is when my life was put on pause” [Syrian youth answering question about his hopes for the future]. In addition to the gap in mental health and psychosocial support services, refugees and migrants relate their despondency directly to the slow and confusing asylum process. A Syrian father of four girls met with NRC and expressed his sense of hopelessness and frustration with the lack of answers when he tried to understand why he and his family had been deemed inadmissible, meaning they should be returned to Turkey stating “I might as well die”.
NRC supports the Government in improving the conditions, including by urban housing for vulnerable individuals, non-formal education, food provisions and site management support.
Fourth reason: Europe is not taking its fair share of responsibility
Only 2,986 asylum-seekers3 have till now been relocated from Greece to other EU countries. One year after the two-year scheme to relocate asylum seekers from Italy and Greece was agreed, it has met 3% of its original target. In addition, the total number of pledges are woefully low at just 11,866 - meaning that merely 18% of the agreed number of 66,400 are on course to be relocated by September 20174 . "I used to be a surgeon. Here I am nothing," [Syrian man in his fifties stranded on Greek island].
NRC is concerned that not only is relocation moving very slowly, but the scheme also discriminates against nationalities whose average recognition rate of international protection at the EU level is under 75%. This means that Afghans are not eligible. Based on latest EU data, Iraqis, who previously met the threshold rate, are now also excluded as their recognition rate has dropped to 73%. Such restrictive eligibility criteria for relocation candidates is unfairly denying scores of asylum seekers likely in need of international protection and who can and should benefit from the scheme.
Greece has had a high number of arrivals of unaccompanied children (UACs)5, 3547 were identified in 2016 alone and 42 percent of these children are currently on waiting lists for safe housing6. European countries are encouraged to expedite the approval rate especially of those most vulnerable, such as children who are on their own.
NRC is of the view that Europe needs to provide asylum seekers with safe and regular routes if it really wants to discourage people in need of protection from embarking on dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean, being left to the mercy of smugglers. Europe should support and substantially scale up the resettling of the most vulnerable refugees, speed up and expanding family reunification and increase the availability and access of scholarships.
Fifth reason: The deal may push people towards more dangerous routes
Six months ago NRC cautioned that making it even more difficult to find legal and safe ways to seek protection, will not stop refugees and migrants from taking often deadly risks to escape war and persecution. As of 31 August UNHCR reports that 31697 people died or went missing in the Mediterranean this year, in comparison to 3771 for the same period in 2015.
As of 11 September, 124,4758 refugees and migrants came to Italy by sea, compared to 116,149 in 2015, most of which leave from Libya, where they have lived under deplorable human rights conditions.
Smugglers and traffickers are known to operate inside sites in Greece, and there have been several media reports on children engaging in harmful survival mechanisms to fund their onward travel, this also happens with women. NRC staff daily listen to the stories of the dangers faced on route to Europe, of smugglers and traffickers taking advantage and children, women and men who have no choice but to trust them. "I feel so ashamed. I have nowhere that is mine and no money to pay to leave from here," [Afghan female in her fifties without permanent housing in Athens referring to the option of being smuggled to another country].
We see a protection crisis unfolding and continue in the Mediterranean and the EU-Turkey deal has not solved this.
1 UNHCR 11 September 2016 weekly update
2 UNHCR Europe Refugee Response update # 29 [up until 8 August]
3 As of 11 September – http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php
5 As of 29 August 2016, 3,464 unaccompanied children were identified and registered with EKKA for safe accommodation in 2016 alone. 1,528 of these children remain on a waiting list for accommodation.
6 EKKA, Mapping of Unaccompanied Children Shelter Needs, v 21, 8 September 2016. 323 of the 1,487 children on the waiting list are currently being accommodated in closed facilities (305 in First Reception Centers and 18 in police protective custody/detention) until more suitable arrangements are available.
7 Number and dead and missing per route. UNHCR factsheet 2 September 2016. http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php
8 UNHCR 15 September weekly update.