UN warns EU over proposed migrant resettlement scheme

Amnesty International says proposal ‘wrought with moral and legal flaws’

EU Council President Donald Tusk says Turkey deal means days of irregular migration are over. Video: Reuters


The United Nations has warned that a proposed scheme to return migrants from Europe to Turkey could contravene international law, just hours after EU leaders hailed a tentative deal with Turkey as a “breakthrough”.

EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Monday endorsed the broad outline of a deal to stop the flow of migrants entering the European Union from Turkey. But they stopped short of fully backing the proposal which would see the EU offer more funding, the lifting of visa requirements for Turkish citizens travelling to the free-travel Schengen area and an acceleration of accession negotiations in exchange for Ankara agreeing to take back migrants.

At the heart of the ambitious scheme is a “one-for-one” resettlement scheme which would see EU countries resettling one refugee for every migrant that is sent back to Turkey.

But in a blow to the plan, which will be discussed again by EU leaders at next week’s scheduled leaders’ summit, the UN’s refugee agency said that any agreement that would involve the blanket return of foreigners to a third country would be in breach of international law.

“Collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under the European Convention on Human Rights. An agreement that would be tantamount to a blanket return of any foreigners to a third country is not consistent with European law, is not consistent with international law,” the UNHCR’s European director Vincent Cochetel said at a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday. “It may lead to a fragmentation of the route. As long as the conflict is not solved, it’s a myth to believe that the people will not try to leave. It may dissuade some people from leaving through that route, but it won’t dissuade everybody.”

The ambitious plan for a mass resettlement scheme which was proposed by Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu has, in principle, the backing of Berlin and of European Council president Donald Tusk. German chancellor Angela Merkel has been pushing for a voluntary direct resettlement scheme which would see willing EU countries accept refugees directly from Turkey. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has already said he would veto a resettlement plan, making the possibility of an EU-wide mandatory system unlikely.

Moral and legal flaws

In the wake of the summit, human rights groups questioned the premise of the deal. Amnesty International said the “one-for-one” resettlement proposal was “wrought with moral and legal flaws”.

“Unsettlingly, this plan would make every resettlement place offered to a Syrian in the EU contingent upon another Syrian risking their life by embarking on the deadly sea route to Greece, ” said Amnesty’s Iverna McGowan in Brussels.

The European Commission insisted on Monday that the agreement would be in keeping with international law.

“The details that will be hammered out between now and the March European Council will be in full compliance with international and European law,” a European Commission spokesman said on Monday in Brussels. “There is a very important understanding of principle, details will now be discussed.”

Negotiations on the deal proposed on Monday night will intensify over the next week ahead of the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday next week. Also included in the draft deal is a proposal to double the money offered to Turkey in November to €6 billion as well as a commitment to cover the costs of the readmission process. In addition it proposes that the visa requirements for Turkish citizens travelling to the Schengen free-travel area be lifted as early as June. The European Commission had already agreed to bring forward the review of visa-free travel arrangements for Turkey to October this year.

Turkey officially became an EU accession country in 2005, but negotiations on EU membership have been stalled, in part because of opposition from Cyprus.

Speaking following Monday’s 12-hour summit, Mr Tusk said that “the days of irregular migration to Europe are over”, while German chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the agreement as a “breakthrough”.