During Lesvos visit, UN chief must highlight human cost of EU’s dismal deal on refugees

So desperate is the plight of the nearly 8,500 men, women and children trapped on the Greek islands that it has prompted a visit by the world’s top diplomat. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s “solidarity” visit to Lesvos on 18 June will again highlight the disastrous reality for the refugees and migrants crammed into camps and sleeping rough, while tireless volunteers struggle to buoy their fragile hope and health.They came by the thousands, fleeing war and repression in hopes of reaching safety and a better life in Europe. Instead, down to little more than unfortunate timing, they are now caught in the middle of a shameful bargain between the EU and Turkey. Marooned in calamitous conditions on the continent’s doorstep, they suffer growing anxiety over the void of their future.

EU leaders should hang their heads in shame that Ban’s visit is needed at all. It speaks volumes about the tragic flaws of the failed EU-Turkey migration deal they rolled out three months ago, to great fanfare.

EU leaders should hang their heads in shame that Ban’s visit is needed at all. It speaks volumes about the tragic flaws of the failed EU-Turkey migration deal they rolled out three months ago, to great fanfare.

Giorgos Kosmopoulos, Researcher on Refugee and Migrants’ Rights at Amnesty International

In a status report on 15 June, the EU’s Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos stated that the deal is on track and is producing results. Chief among them has been a sharp decrease in the flows of refugees into Europe via Greece, a stated goal since the deal took effect on 20 March. So far, so good, statistically speaking.

But these statistics belie a deeper reality. The EU continues to hinge the deal on a dangerous bit of myth-making. Returning asylum seekers to Turkey is based on the false pretense that it is a “safe” country to host them. But the only apparent evidence for this claim is that Turkey and the EU say so.

Such vapid assurances might sound convincing to officials behind desks in Brussels and other European capitals, or to leaders who were swiftly shown a highly scripted version of Turkey’s refugee camps. Maybe they are just willfully turning a blind eye to the truth on the ground. Either way, the end result has been a crushing of the hopes and human rights of thousands of refugees trapped on the Greek islands, fearing what lies in store for them.

I met Hani only recently. A 31-year-old former economics student, he is one of many Syrians at direct risk of being returned to Turkey. He arrived on Chios on 20 March, the day the deal took effect. Hard luck – a day earlier and, who knows, he might have avoided his current nightmare. Three months later he is still trapped in squalid living conditions, awaiting news of his asylum application. Meanwhile rumours abound, carrying promises and threats alike. Smugglers are after what little money he’s got left and violence regularly erupts as people get ever more desperate. The first day I met Hani, he told me the thought of being sent back to Turkey “freezes his heart”.

He is not the only one. Ahmad, an engineer who fled Syria with his family told me that locals in Turkey abused and beat them in front of his own eyes, merely for being Syrians. He also said that earlier this year his sister and her children were forcibly removed from Turkey to Syria. Again, the mere mention of Turkey makes him shiver.

It is immoral to force people like Hani and families like Ahmad’s to live in daily fear and anxiety. It is illegal to send refugees like them back to Turkey – as appeal committees in Athens have already found. Despite this, two Syrian refugees currently detained on Lesvos could soon become the first to be returned to Turkey against their will since the deal. Meanwhile three other asylum-seekers facing deportation have taken their cases to the European Court of Justice, arguing that their return under the EU-Turkey deal would violate EU law.

Amnesty International’s research has uncovered credible evidence that, numerous times in late 2015 and early 2016, hundreds and potentially thousands of asylum-seekers and refugees in Turkey were sent back to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. This is a flagrant violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Turkish officials rightly point out that the country is hosting more refugees than any other. It’s also true that many live in appalling conditions and have no possibility to be granted full refugee status. This is a reality that the EU cannot ignore.

Pretending that the current dip in arrivals to Europe will be sustained is yet another fallacy. Pulling up the drawbridge on Fortress Europe has only increased the human cost as people take ever more dangerous routes. It also plays into the hands of the criminal people-smuggling networks that the EU has pledged to tackle.

But instead of changing course, EU leaders are proliferating the evolving paradigm behind their bargain with Turkey. The EU’s plans to cooperate more closely with Libya on migration risk fuelling rampant ill-treatment and indefinite detention in horrifying conditions of thousands of refugees and migrants there. With the global refugee crisis showing no signs of abating, it is time to nip these dirty deals in the bud.

As they often do, Commissioner Avramopoulos and other EU officials this week paid lip service to the need for safe, legal routes for refugees to reach Europe. But the EU-Turkey deal and its sequels are not the way to do this.

Instead of outsourcing its refugee-protection responsibilities, the EU needs to find real and lasting solutions.

Giorgos Kosmopoulos

Instead of outsourcing its refugee-protection responsibilities, the EU needs to find real and lasting solutions. These must include the effective resettlement of refugees to Europe from Turkey, via safe and legal routes, as well as the relocation of the thousands of refugees now in Greece to other European countries.
Like Pope Francis and others before him, this weekend Secretary-General Ban is sure to witness scenes of human suffering at Moria detention centre on Lesvos. That a large portion of the camp’s facilities were destroyed by a fire that broke out amid clashes earlier this month hints at the sheer desperation of those within. Ban should be unequivocal that the EU-Turkey deal has been a clear and unacceptable root cause of much this despair.

Many claim that the EU-Turkey deal is crumbling and might collapse. Whatever the reasons behind its potential demise, it is important for EU leaders to acknowledge that it was immoral and illegal from the word go. The new paradigm they are trying to set should not stand – engaging in illegal deals to bring about the desired “results” is not how they should be going about their affairs.

Europe can and must set an example for wealthy countries around the world to share responsibility for protecting refugees. While on Lesvos, Secretary-General Ban should make clear that anything less is a moral and legal failure, and the EU and its members must live up to their international obligations.