In exchange for agreeing to turn back refugees from entering Europe, Turkey will be offered visa liberalisation for 75 million Turks by 1 June, as well as restarting Turkey’s long-stalled EU accession talks.
Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown said the Prime Minister’s support of a Nato mission in the Aegean Sea that will forciby return refugees to Turkey was tantamont to the UK Government abandoning the very people it claims to be helping. “There is great confusion about if they are going to take them back to Turkey or to Greece,” he added. “They haven’t a bloody clue what they are doing. I’m just really concerned that, as usual, the Government has sanctioned an appalling and totally immoral policy without working out the details. I think they are getting away with blue murder.” Lord Ashdown said the sea mission amounted to rescuing refugees before “abandoning them” and cautioned that clashes could break out when migrants are forcibly returned to Turkey.
Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, questioned the legality of an outline deal struck by the EU and Turkey. “As a first reaction I am deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another, without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law.” Grandi said asylum seekers should only be returned to other states if there was a guarantee that that they would not then be sent back to the place they had fled. The country of return also had to ensure asylum seekers had access to work, healthcare, education and social assistance, Grandi said. He reminded his audience that the Syrian conflict was entering its sixth year, and that Syrian refugees were facing “increasingly difficult” conditions in Jordan and Lebanon: 90% lived below the poverty line as they were unable to work and had run down all their savings. He said Afghans, who many European states do not deem to have legitimate asylum claims, also had “urgent protection needs”. According to the UNHCR, 31 out of Afghanistan’s 34 regions saw a surge in people fleeing conflict last year. The number of internally displaced Afghans has risen to a million people, up 78%. Grandi also said: “In public opinion the image [of a refugee] is often of young single men arriving in Europe to look for work. Today, on International Women’s Day, I wish to report that nearly two thirds are women and children.”
Vincent Cochetel, the UN high commissioner for refugees’ regional director for Europe, said an EU commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees over two years, on a voluntary basis, remained “very low”. “The collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under the European convention of human rights,” Cochetel explained.
Melanie Ward, from the International Rescue Committee, described the “one in one out” policy as unhelpful. “If this policy is designed to incentivise Turkey to stop refugees leaving their shores, it in fact risks doing the opposite,” she said. “This is not a matter purely of numbers but of humanitarian need and decisions should be made on that basis. This is in no-one’s interests except the smugglers.”
Amnesty International has said it is “absurd” to describe Turkey as a safe third country. The group says that some Syrians have been returned to Syria and been shot at while trying to cross the Turkish border. Iverna McGowan, head of Amnesty's International's European Institutions Office, said: "EU and Turkish leaders have sunk to a new low, effectively horse trading away the rights and dignity of some of the world's most vulnerable people."
Human Rights Watch also said Turkey cannot be regarded as a safe country of asylum. Kurds fleeing Iraq, Syria and Turkey could face a “very dangerous situation” if they were forced to return to Turkey under the proposed EU deal. “It is knowingly short-sighted for EU leaders to close their borders without considering the impact on Turkey’s borders with Syria,” said Bill Frelick, HRW’s refugee rights director.
Completely closing Europe’s external borders and sending all illegal migrants back to Turkey will only strengthen criminal groups and push refugees into the hands of Isis, the International Organisation for Migration has warned. The IOM’s EU director, Eugenio Ambrosi, said the idea of border controls as a security safeguard was a “myth”, warning that turning Europe into a fortress would simply increase unchecked illegal migration while raising “resentment” among those who are kept out. “The complete closure of the border seems not only excessive but also not very effective,” he said. “These people are fleeing for their lives – so they are not going to be stopped by a fence.” Rather than being deterred, the measures are likely to drive people traffickers to use other, more dangerous routes to get people into Europe, Mr Ambrosi said. “For the traffickers and smugglers, these people are disposable items – once they get paid to put people across a border they don’t care if they arrive safely on the other side.” And Mr Ambrosi said those who are deterred from making the journey would be left as “easy prey” for criminal and terrorist recruiters.
Where there is a wall, there is usually a way of getting round it.
Meanwhile, those refugees who managed to reach the UK, more than 3,500 migrants were detained in “wholly unacceptable” conditions lacking in human decency, according to a report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP). The Dover Seaport facility was “crowded, poorly ventilated and smelled badly”. Conditions were equally poor at Frontier House where there was nowhere suitable to rest, no shower facilities and no windows.