The EU-Turkey refugee deal - one year on, and still a disaster


13 March 2017

While global attention has been paid to Trump’s Muslim-bans and Mexican border wall, the governments of the UK and EU have managed to pursue their own equally draconian migration policies. While they may have passed largely under the radar and escaped mass public outcry they are part of the same chilling attempt to promote a new global norm whereby refugees and migrants are no longer offered protection but are instead sent away, often right back to the very places they fled from. 

This week marks one year since the controversial EU-Turkey deal was signed with the aim of stopping people reaching Europe’s borders in Greece by returning new arrivals back to Turkey. The deal has been called a “disaster” by Amnesty International, while Human Rights Watch has accused it of setting a dangerous precedent of disregarding international refugee laws. Thousands of people have had to endure the chaotic consequences of the deal. Not only were people forced in to unlawful detention immediately following the agreement, but some 5,000, potentially very vulnerable, people are now totally unaccounted for and at least 15,000 migrants and refugees remain in squalid conditions in camps across Greek islands.

The UK and EU, however, remain defiant in proclaiming the deal’s overwhelming success. In response to Global Justice Now’s campaign calling on the UK’s Foreign Office to end the inhumane pact, the department simply reaffirmed its commitment to the agreement and to continue returning people to Turkey. In correspondence from the Foreign Office, civil servants stated that Turkey “offers sufficient protection, in law and practice, to returnees.”

The Foreign Office dismisses security concerns about terrorism by simply stating that “refugees have not been targeted” while at the same time gives contrary advice for UK citizen’s travelling to Turkey, stating that there is “a high threat from terrorism. Terrorist groups…continue to plan and carry out attacks. Further attacks are likely and could be indiscriminate.”

On top of Turkey’s current politically instability, most refugees there are not actually offered full protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention which completely undermines the notion that Turkey constitutes a safe country to which refugees can be returned.

More migrant deals spell more misery

Not only has the UK stood firm in its support for this deal, it is now using this model as a blue-print for more migration pacts that essentially allow it to outsource its border controls, abandon its responsibilities under international refugee law and, most sinisterly, help normalise the practice of forcibly sending refugees on, either to an unsafe third country, or to the very places they have fled from.

This new norm can be seen in numerous subsequent deals made since the EU-Turkey one. This includes the deal with Afghanistan, whereby unlimited numbers of people can now be forcibly returned to Afghanistan, despite it still being one of the world’s most violent countries. It also includes a new style of migration policy that aims to send people to the other side of the world. Just last month, Theresa May announced a £20 million commitment to the Emerging Resettlement Countries Joint Support Mechanism – a scheme that help sends refugees from places like Syria on to Latin America or Asia, rather than re-settle them in Europe.

This attack on refugee rights doesn’t stop at turning people away once they arrive, it also focuses on stopping people in ‘transit’ countries, which is the rationale behind the new deal made with Libya whereby the EU is to fund migrant camps inside Libya, as well as train coast guards to stop people leaving the country. This is happening despite UN reports showing how migrants in Libya are routinely exposed to torture, forced labour and sexual violence. The situation is particularly severe for women migrants travelling through Libya, many of whom, faced with an almost certain fate of rape or sexual abuse, take contraceptives as a preventative measure

Meanwhile, the lives of child migrants are being put at risk by yet more new migration policies. As if turning its back on child refugees by axing the ‘Dubs scheme’ wasn’t enough, in recent weeks the EU renewed its Action Plan on Returns. It places emphasis on the need to speed up the ‘removal’ of migrants from Europe, and doing so with fewer safeguards and increasing the use of detention. A statement from a group of NGOs who focus on child rights have warned that this will have particularly severe implications on children who are more vulnerable to many forms of exploitation. Last month three children in Europe’s detention system committed suicide as they were unable to cope with the immigration and removal process, or handle the prospect of being returned to Afghanistan.

Taken alongside what is happening in the USA, with Trump’s sabotage of the national refugee programmes and his outright banning of certain people from entering the country, it becomes clear that the world’s wealthiest countries are turning their backs on migrant rights and refugee protection. And other countries are following suite. When the Kenyan government announced its plans to close the Dadaab refugee camps, it suggested EU policy had influenced the decision. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s authorities are undergoing a “concerted push” to send thousands of refugees back to Afghanistan.

These are dark days for the global community who seem to have forgotten the lessons of history. The UN refugee convention was, after all, established in the aftermath of the second world war to ensure that the atrocities of the holocaust were not repeated. Returning us to the days where there were no refugee protections or rights for migrants will place us firmly on the wrong side of history.   

Photo: Idomeni refugee camp in Northern Greece. Flickr/Julian Buijzen

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