The first groups of migrants have been put on ferries from Greece and deported back to Turkey. But what happened to them next – and what is likely to happen to the thousands who will surely follow – is much less clear.
According to media reports, they were transferred to a recently built detention centre in Pehlivanköy, northwestern Turkey. Journalists have had no access to them. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, is yet to be granted permission to speak to them. It later emerged that 13 returnees had illegally not been given the chance to apply for asylum in Greece.
Can Turkey be considered a ‘safe third country’, as defined by international and European laws as a country where returnees can expect a fair and efficient asylum process. Those determined to have valid asylum claims should then be entitled to the standards of treatment and the rights set out by the 1951 Refugee Convention. Refugee law experts pointed out that Turkey does not meet these prerequisites. Greece attempted to work around the issue of the definition of a safe third country by hastily passing a law on 1 April that means Turkey can be considered a ‘first country of asylum’ for people deemed to have had ‘sufficient protection’. This removes the requirement that returnees must have access to individual refugee status determinations and protection in accordance with the 1951 Convention and means only that they must be safe from ‘refoulement’ – return to a country where their life or freedom would be under threat. It is questionable whether Turkey meets even this lower threshold of protection. In recent weeks, human rights groups have alleged that asylum seekers from both Afghanistan and Iraq have been detained, denied access to proper asylum procedures, and forcibly returned to their home countries. There have also been multiple accounts of Syrians being pushed back to Syria after attempting to cross the border into Turkey.
UNHCR’s regional director for Europe, Vincent Cochetel, was quoted in a French newspaper last week stating that “Turkey cannot be considered as a country of asylum” and that its asylum law was not operational.
“There’s a deafening silence from Turkey and UNHCR on whether Turkey will let non-European asylum seekers returned from Greece lodge refugee claims and process them fairly,” commented Gerry Simpson, a senior refugee researcher with Human Rights Watch. “If Turkey starts automatically deporting them to places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, Greece would be in clear breach of EU law prohibiting return to unsafe countries.”
Orçun Ulusoy, a human rights lawyer from Turkey, cited allegations of abuse at a deportation centre for irregular migrants in the town of Askale and described Turkey’s asylum and migration system as “still in its infancy”…Inexperienced, under-equipped, under-trained, and under the wrong influences, this system is far away from providing a safe haven from migrants and refugees,” he wrote.