17th Mar 2018

EU sends back 200 migrants, despite legal concerns

  • Migrants leaving Lesbos island escorted by Frontex agents. "Greek authorities are doing their best, but that's not enough at the moment," said UNHCR Europe chief. (Photo: Reuters)

Legal and practical concerns over the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal were still running deep as the first migrants were returned from Greece to Turkey on Monday (4 April).

Greece is lacking the capacity to process thousands of people stuck on its islands since 20 March - the date after which new arrivals would face much quicker deportation.

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Athens passed the necessary legislation last Friday to create a legal basis for the returns, which are enforced when a migrant does not apply for asylum in Greece, or if their applications are declared inadmissible.

But fast-track asylum procedures, with appeals to be processed on the mainland, are to take at least two weeks in each case.

According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee body, no asylum requests have been processed so far at the Greek hotspots, the reception centers, for those who arrived after 20 March.

The situation means the first Syrians, who make up the majority of the refugee flow, are unlikely to be returned any time soon.

Three boats left in the early hours of Monday from the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios with 202 migrants, who Greek authorities said were not claiming asylum. Most of the migrants were from Pakistan. Two Syrians also returned voluntarily, Greece said.

But Vincent Cochetel, the director of the UNHCR’s European office, said there might have been people who needed international protection on the third boat from Chios.

"It appears 13 [people] were on the boat who may have applied for asylum, and had registered their wish to do so two days ago," Cochetel told EUobserver.

He added that the UN is seeking clarification from Greek authorities. The migrants concerned are Afghanis and Congolese.

The UNHCR has no objections to the first two boats and no concern over sending back economic migrants - people who do not need international protection, Cochetel added.

Turkey's guarantees

Another sticking point is whether Turkey will in fact provide the necessary protection for those who are returned.

The UNHCR over the weekend called on all parties to ensure all "safeguards" are in place before returns start, and said in a statement that there were "serious gaps" both in Turkey and Greece.

The European Commission on Monday insisted that no-one would be returned to Turkey before their asylum application is processed. They also would not be returned if they had no guarantees of protection in Turkey.

"Turkey has provided formal guarantees that all Syrians refugees returned to Turkey will see their protection status returned," a European Commission spokesperson said.

"The amendment to the temporary protection regulation, we understand, will be adopted immediately, and non-Syrians in need of international protection will continue to benefit from that."

An EU source said proper monitoring of the Turkish procedure is part of the ongoing talks between European and Turkish officials.

Under the deal, for every returned Syrian EU countries will resettle a Syrian refugee from Turkey.

On Monday, Germany took in 32 people and Finland took 11. The Netherlands is expected to give refuge to 34 Syrians on Tuesday.

Lesbos conditions

Some NGOs have also voiced concern over lack of transparency.

"There is a de facto news blackout. Nobody is allowed to go into the camp or talk to the refugees," Wenzel Michalski, a spokesman for the US-based NGO Human Rights Watch told this website from Lesbos.

Michalski indicated this prevents NGOs from monitoring the procedure. "It's scandalous! What do they have to hide?", he said.

He said people were transferred by bus from the Moira camp, where 3000 to 4000 still remain, escorted by an equal number of border guards from the EU agency Frontex to the harbour in the very early morning and put on ferries to Turkey by 8am.

Michalski said he managed to talk to two young Syrians over the fence of the closed camp, who complained they were handed asylum papers only in Greek, which they do not understand.

UNHCR's Cochetel said Greece needs a big boost in terms of capacity and needs it quickly.

"Greek authorities are doing their best, but that's not enough at the moment," he said, adding that the eurozone bailout conditions limit how many staff ministries can hire.

Over the weekend, 206 escort officers from Frontex were deployed to Greece, as well as 32 officers from EASO, the bloc's asylum agency.

But EU support staff for Greece are still short of earlier pledges by fellow member states.

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