Last Monday, 202 migrants were put on ferries from Greece and deported back to Turkey. As the first group to be returned under the EU’s migration deal with Turkey, their departure from the Greek islands of Lesvos and Chios under police escort, and their arrival at the Turkish port of Dikili, took place under the full glare of the international media. 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, has yet to be granted permission to speak to them, even when it later emerged that 13 returnees had not been given the chance to apply for asylum in Greece.
“UNHCR has asked for access to those returned from Greece. Those discussions are ongoing,” UNHCR spokeswoman Ariane Rummery told IRIN.
The legality of the EU-Turkey deal rests on the notion that Turkey is a ‘safe third country’, which is 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.
Even before the returns began, refugee law experts pointed out that Turkey does not meet these prerequisites. 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.
New law, same problems
A new law on foreigners came into force in 2014 that aimed to bring Turkey’s laws on asylum and migration in line with EU legislation. It handed over responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers from the police to a new civilian authority called the Directorate General of Migration Management.
The DGMM was expected to take over refugee status determinations from UNHCR, which had been doing them in conjunction with the police. But its staff lacked experience and were overwhelmed with the influx of refugees from Syria. Their job was also complicated by the fact that while Turkey is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, it has maintained a geographical limitation, which means (bizarrely) that it only grants full refugee status to those fleeing Europe.
Non-European asylum seekers now have the right to access basic healthcare, education and employment, but on the ground, these rights have often been extremely difficult to realise. Most migrants and asylum seekers continue to work in the informal economy, if at all, and either plan to move on to Europe or hold out for the small possibility that UNHCR will facilitate their resettlement to a third country.
“The system is blocked,” said Metin Çorabatır, president of the Ankara-based Research Centre on Asylum and Migration. “Still in Turkey, for non-Europeans there is no local integration option, no strategy from the government.
“International protection should include durable solutions in the form of local integration with a status and rights. In Turkey, it doesn’t work,” he told IRIN. “There’s no real option for a person to be recognised [as a refugee] and to start a new life in Turkey.”
Syrians first, others later
Registered Syrian refugees have been given blanket temporary protection in Turkey, avoiding the need for them to go through individual asylum assessments. Last week, Turkey passed an amendment that will allow temporary protection status to be reinstated to Syrians following their return from Greece (previously their status was revoked if they left the country).
“They will be tolerated to live in Turkey,” noted Çorabatır. “But the living conditions and integration possibilities are not in place.”
The three billion euros Turkey is to receive under its deal with the EU is supposed to be used to improve conditions for Syrian refugees, but Çorabatır is doubtful it will be enough.
“It’s not only hunger and the lack of job opportunities; it’s the lack of a legal status and guarantees to access rights,” he told IRIN.
With UNHCR prioritising asylum claims from the most vulnerable, such as unaccompanied minors and people with chronic illnesses, other nationalities of asylum seekers endure what Çorabatır described as “unbearable” waiting periods for refugee status determinations. Some have been told that they will have to wait until 2025 before they can have even a first interview.
Whether someone returning from Greece will even be able to apply for asylum in Turkey is “a grey area,” according to Çorabatır.
Greece attempted to work around the thorny 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.
The DGMM insists that the returns to Afghanistan were all voluntary and that none of the returnees had requested asylum. It did not respond to IRIN’s requests for comment.
While UNHCR’s Turkey office has been silent on the EU-Turkey deal and had yet to respond to IRIN’s questions at time of publication, the agency’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.”