Questions mount over EU’s role in processing asylum requests

The deportation of migrants from Greece to Turkey may be fast-tracked by an EU agency

Refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan at a detention centre in Lesbos protest on Tuesday against their impending deportation to Turkey. Photograph: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

Refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan at a detention centre in Lesbos protest on Tuesday against their impending deportation to Turkey. Photograph: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

 

Four days after the deportation by the EU border agency Frontex of the first group of migrants from Greece to Turkey following the signing of the EU-Ankara deal, questions are mounting as to the EU’s role in processing asylum applications from the thousands of people who have arrived on Greece’s islands since March 20th, when the agreement came into force.

While no more deportations have taken place since Monday, almost 5,500 people are now in detention on four Greek islands, 3,100 of them in the Moria hotspot on Lesbos alone, including women, children and other vulnerable groups.

According to Boris Cheshirkov of the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, “close to everyone” in Moria has submitted an asylum application.

Under the new regime created by the EU-Turkey agreement, asylum applications from island detainees must be processed within two weeks, in a fast-tracked time frame that includes the appeal process. Previously, the Greek asylum service took an average of three months to adjudicate on each application.

A key aspect sees the European Asylum Support Office (Easo), another EU agency, advise overburdened Greek asylum officials on the “admissibility” of each asylum seeker at the initial stage of processing. Easo spokesman Jean Pierre Schembri told the BBC: “This is a relatively short process involving our experts … accessing every applicant on his or her own merits. We then issue an opinion and the Greek authorities then issue the final decision.”

But human rights organisations fear the outcome of this truncated, two-step process, where Greek officials will essentially sign off on Easo recommendations, is predetermined to result in most applicants being returned to Turkey, a “safe third country” according to the agreement.

Questions remain

Amnesty International

“You can’t have confusion or doubt around these procedures before you kick it off,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty’s deputy director for Europe.

“The biggest question for us is what information and which criteria will be used to decide whether someone is or isn’t at risk in Turkey . . . In some cases, it is quite random how some people are targeted, so it’s not about the individual’s experience or how long they’ve lived in Turkey, alone. It’s also about Afghans not getting any status legally in Turkey if they go back.

“The bottom line is that here is no permanent protection for anyone [in Turkey]. There’s only temporary protection status for Syrians and then there’s the practice of certain groups being tolerated for a certain while, which is very different to having protection, access to work and access to social services.”

After obtaining access to Moria and another centre on Chios, Amnesty said thousands of refugees and migrants were being held arbitrarily in appalling conditions amid growing uncertainty, fear and despair over their fate under the new EU-Turkey deal.

Among the 89 people Amnesty’s team interviewed, there were a large number of particularly vulnerable people, including pregnant women, babies, small children and people with disabilities, trauma and serious illnesses.

While Schembri maintains that the vulnerability of each applicant will be taken into consideration by Easo staff when making a recommendation, Amnesty points out that the exact requirements or criteria of what constitutes vulnerability are not defined in any public document.

Decision

“With arrivals continuing and the deportations halted, numbers at the hotspot are bound to swell even more,” according to Jonas Hagensen, of Medecins Sans Frontieres.

On a recent visit inside the camp, he found up to 40 people had to sleep outside in the open because there was no shelter available. One man had a pacemaker and showed signs of having diabetes.

“He is a clearly vulnerable case who should not be in a detention centre,” Hagensen said, adding that MSF is deeply concerned at the capacity of the authorities to deliver assistance. The facility has “become a detention centre with one purpose: to deem everyone inadmissible and send them back. That is an inhumane, unfair system and we don’t want to be a part of that,” Hagensen said, explaining that MSF closed its clinic within the camp in protest at the EU–Turkey deal.

“The returns strategy is doomed to fail. If every country in the world does what the EU is doing now, in deciding what is a safe third country, then there are no refugees anymore. Turkey can then declare parts of Syria to be safe.”

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