European and Turkish authorities meeting in Brussels reached a draft agreement on 8 March whereby the European Union (EU) will be able to forcibly return all new asylum seekers arriving on Greek Islands back to Turkey. According to the agreement, Europe promises to resettle one Syrian refugee from Turkish camps in the EU for each asylum seeker turned back to Turkey. Refugees from countries like Iraq or Afghanistan who reach Europe by the same route are not covered by the agreement and will not be able to ask for asylum in the EU.
With this deal, Europe is essentially closing the doors on any refugee who is not Syrian, and even Syrians will be subject to quotas. This means that the EU will institute on-the-spot deportations — the immediate expulsion of potential refugees without giving them any chance to request asylum.
European authorities claim to be trying to alleviate the situation in Greece, a country inundated by the flow of refugees coming from Turkish coasts. A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report describes conditions at the Idomeni refugee camp in Greece, where the cold and rain are exacerbating the suffering of thousands of people:
Crowded conditions are leading to shortages in food, shelter, water and sanitation. Tensions have been building, fueling violence and playing into the hands of people smugglers.
In exchange for accepting the forcible return of refugees to its shores, the EU pledges to provide an as yet undetermined amount of money to Turkey, aimed at caring for the 2.7 million refugees it is housing within its borders. Likewise, the EU will stop requiring visas of Turkish citizens as of June 2016 and will open “new chapters” in Turkey's EU accession negotiations.
Numerous human rights organizations have questioned the agreement's legality. Social action ministries within the Catholic Church of Spain issued a press release (in Spanish, information in English here) deploring that “the image of a Europe for the merchant class has reemerged as a scandalous conclusion to the long series of chaotic, confusing and repressive actions that have been adopted over the last few months against refugees on the Eastern Border”:
El acuerdo adoptado con Turquía viola los convenios internacionales y europeos ratificados por los Estados miembros que prohíben expresamente la devolución de personas que son objeto de persecución o víctimas de guerra. (…) Además, supondrá un incremento mayor si cabe del inmenso saldo de sufrimiento, dolor y muerte por parte de quienes siguen arriesgando cada día sus vidas mientras buscan bienestar, seguridad y protección a las puertas de Europa.
The agreement adopted with Turkey violates international and European conventions ratified by Member States which expressly prohibit the refoulement of persons who have been subject to persecution or are victims of war…. Furthermore, it will assuredly lead to a great increase in the immense amount of suffering, pain and death amongst those who are risking their lives every day in search of well-being, safety and protection at Europe's doors.
Vincent Cochetel, European director for the UNHCR, said in an interview:
The collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under the European Convention of Human Rights. An agreement that would be tantamount to a blanket return to a third country is not consistent with European law, with international law.
Children's rights organization Save the Children expressed its concerns over the direction being taken by European countries:
Europe’s concern goes no further than guarding its external borders and containing people within Turkey – depriving vulnerable people and children fleeing war and persecution from seeking asylum in Europe, which is a violation of both international and refugee law.
Iverna McGowan, director of Amnesty International's European Institutions office, warned that according to European leaders, turning back refugees “would be possible under EU law once Turkey [is] designated a ‘safe country'”. She expressed doubts as to what kind of safety Turkey could offer the refugees:
Turkey has forcibly returned refugees to Syria and many refugees in the country live in desperate conditions without adequate housing. Hundreds of thousands of refugee children cannot access formal education. By no stretch of the imagination can Turkey be considered a ‘safe third country’ that the EU can cosily outsource its obligations to.
Web users have also harshly criticised the EU's decision. As journalist Íñigo Sáenz de Ugarte writes in an article entitled “The Collapse of Europe“:
Es el triunfo de las posiciones xenófobas y racistas de varios gobiernos de Europa del Este, aunque estos no hayan conseguido todo lo que pretendían.
(…) la UE ha optado por convertir a Grecia en un inmenso campo de internamiento y poner en marcha un proceso por el que los que no tengan el derecho a ser acogidos sean devueltos a Turquía. Y para ello, ha firmado un pacto con el diablo al hacer varios regalos al Gobierno turco, embarcado en una deriva autoritaria y represiva del mismo tipo que los países europeos denuncian en otras zonas del mundo.
It is a triumph of the xenophobic and racist positions of Eastern European governments, even though they haven't managed to achieve everything they wanted.
…The EU has opted to convert Greece into an immense internment camp and enact a process by which those who do not have the right to be accepted will be turned back to Turkey. And to that end, they have signed a pact with the devil by giving various gifts to the Turkish government, embarking upon an authoritarian and repressive path of the same type that European countries have denounced in other parts of the world.
Journalist and war correspondent Ramón Lobo expressed similar opinions in his column on InfoLibre:
Ganan Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban y Pergida; gana la Europa xenófoba. (…) Hay un tufo antidemocrático, y por qué no decirlo, fascistoide, en muchas de las cosas que se dicen y hacen, en las justificaciones para expulsar refugiados como si fueran ellos los que violan la ley cuando la ley la violamos nosotros al impedir el refugio a los perseguidos por la guerra.
As Marine Le Pen [of France], Viktor Orban [of Hungary] and [German movement] Pergida win, so wins a xenophobic Europe…. There is an anti-democratic, and why not say it, a fascist stink, in many of the things being said and done, in the justifications for expelling refugees as if they were the ones violating the law when we ourselves are violating the law by refusing refuge to those fleeing war.
On Twitter, many web users also expressed their outrage:
Lo que acaba con los valores de Europa no son unos miles de refugiados, sino la crueldad con la que los tratamos pic.twitter.com/ovRIM7umy6
— Eterno Primavera (@SiPeroNo1) March 7, 2016
What European values have led to is not the thousands of refugees but the cruelty with which we are treating them.
— Miguel A. Rodríguez (@Marodriguez1971) March 6, 2016
Sure. The beating that history will give us for this will be merciless. Idomeni.
Europa es una asociación de empresas que no tiene por qué preocuparse de los refugiados y esas tonterías que no afectan a las bolsas.
— gerardo tecé (@gerardotc) March 7, 2016
Europe is a business association that doesn't care about refugees and these stupid things unless they affect the markets.
Meanwhile, negotiations continue and it remains to be seen if European politicians will bow to the pressure and modify the agreement's purportedly illegal proposals before talks close permanently on 18 March.