23rd Oct 2016

Turkey denies protection to returning Syrians

A migrant swap deal with Ankara is progressing well despite returning Syrians being denied guaranteed protection status in Turkey, says the EU commission.

EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told reporters on Wednesday (28 September) that "adequate standards" were in place for those returned under the March deal.

But earlier in the day, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said not a single Syrian returned from Greece has been granted any temporary protection status, despite the "formal guarantees" under the EU's deal with Ankara.

"As we speak today, none of the Syrians that have returned to Turkey have got temporary protection," Vincent Cochetal, UNHCR's Europe director, told this website.

Turkey is also supposed to allow the UN agency access to facilities where the returning Syrians are temporarily sheltered.

But access to the centre has been blocked since a failed military coup in July.

"We thought we had permission, we were not given access. For us that is an important aspect of the safeguards," he said.

Speed up returns

Instead, Avramopoulos said they intended to "speed up returns" when asked how the fate of returned Syrians in Turkey and the UN agency blockade complies with his definition of "adequate standards".

"The situation within Turkey is exactly as it was before. Turkish authorities are providing Syrians with their support and help," he told Euobserver.

But the UNHCR is sending out an entirely different message.

Cochetal said the returnees were being forced through a security screening process that was taking too long.

"Those security screenings should take in principle one month but are taking a much longer period of time," he said.

The issue poses larger questions over the EU legal claim that Turkey is a safe country for people returned from Greece.

People that cross the Aegean sea to Greece are shuffled under the scheme's 'inadmissibility' category. Inadmissibility means the substance of a person's claim to asylum is not scrutinised by Greek authorities.

Instead, the Greeks probe to see if Turkey is deemed a "safe third country", or a place that provides what Avramopoulos has described in vague terms as "adequate standards".

Greek authorities will be even more hard pressed to return any Syrian if Turkey denies them temporary protection status as promised.

Out of the 578 who have ended up back in Turkey under the scheme, only 51 are Syrians. And they volunteered to go back.

"It is possible that they [Syrians] gave up after months and weeks of waiting on the islands," Karl Kopp, director of the German-based NGO Pro Asyl, told this website earlier this month.

The NGO represented nine Syrians in Greece facing deportation to Turkey in April. The Greek administrative appeals committee found that Turkey was not a "safe third country" for Syrian refugees.

Conditions dire on Greek islands

To add to the woes, thousands of people are stuck on the Greek islands with reports surfacing of suicides and fights. Strikes among aid workers are also reported given the poor conditions and insecurity.

Less than five percent of asylum claims by Afghans and Iraqis on the islands have been processed, says the UN. And none have had their claims registered in the past six months.

Another 47,000 are stranded on the Greek mainland. The vast majority are from war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Around 7,500 of those are in apartments or in hotels. The rest are living in camps where women and girls risk violence.

"Women and girls are living in a constant state of insecurity and fear," said Iverna McGowan at Amnesty International's EU office. Basic measures like proper lighting, separate toilets and showers, are often absent.

Yet, since last year, Greece has been granted some €352 million in emergency funds from the EU commission to address the short comings. But administrative complications and bottlenecks on the Greek side means €90 million has been awarded to the government.

The bulk is going to aid agencies and NGOs.

Greece has also been returning Moroccans to Turkey, mostly by bus through land border crossing points by hundreds, under a separate bilateral readmission agreement it has with Ankara.

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