Thursday

22nd Aug 2019

EU-Turkey migrant deal redundant, rights chief says

  • Frustration and despair is common currency among asylum seekers in Greece (Photo: Fotomovimiento)

Migrants and refugees would no longer seek to cross into Greece from Turkey even if the controversial migrant deal between the EU and Ankara ceased to exist, says Europe's human rights chief.

Nils Muiznieks, human rights commissioner at the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, told reporters in Brussels on Thursday (1 March) that people are now aware of all the difficulties and obstacles they face in the effort to reach mainland Europe.

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"It is quite difficult to get further, further from the islands, further from the [Greek] mainland, because you encounter fences all along the route," he said.

"People are aware that the ability to move onward to northern Europe is much more difficult than it was a couple of years ago."

The EU-Turkey deal, formally known as a 'statement', was launched in early 2016 to stem the large inflow of mostly Syrian refugees crossing over onto the Greek islands before heading further north through the Western Balkans and then settling in Germany and elsewhere.

Frontex, the EU border agency, in 2015 detected some 764,000 border crossings throughout the Balkan region, a 16-fold increase when compared to the year before. The agency also currently runs its largest operation, Poseidon, in the Aegean where it helps Greece with border surveillance.

But the Balkan borders were then shut off, trapping thousands of people inside mainland Greece ahead of an Austrian-led push to seal the corridor towards Hungary.

Many ended up in makeshift camps amid scenes of violence, protests, and desperation in Greece. Border fences had also been erected along borders in Bulgaria, Hungary, France and Spain.

Similar scenes of desperation continue to play out on the Greek islands, where prolonged detention, administrative delays, and violence against women and children are commonplace.

Earlier this year, the UN refugee agency said more than a quarter of the asylum seekers at the overcrowded centres on the islands had reported sexual and gender-based violence in 2017. The abuse is particularly bad in the centres on Lesbos and Samos islands.

"In these two centres, bathrooms and latrines are no-go zones after dark for women or children, unless they are accompanied," noted the UN agency in early February.

Over 170,000 refugees and migrants entered Europe by sea last year, with both Italy and Greece registering the lowest number of arrivals in four years amid a spike in Spain.

Council of Europe funding woes

Muiznieks' comments on the EU-Turkey statement follow a broader pressure against human rights throughout Europe in general. Muiznieks is in the last month of his six year-mandate as the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner.

He warned that institutions like the Council of Europe, and its European court of human rights, are facing both direct and indirect challenges.

Among them is a drop in the council's overall €244 million ordinary budget for 2018 after Turkey reduced its contribution late last year.

Turkey had up until then been a major payer into the budget but then reduced it after the Council awarded a Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize 2017 to former judge Murat Arslan. Arslan was among the thousands of people arrested over their supposed links to the outlawed Fethullah Gulen, which Turkey blames for the failed 2016 military coup.

Russia is also problematic. Last June it was supposed to pay €22 million and then another €11 million in February. Both payments have been missed amid speculation that Russia would withdraw from European convention of human rights.

But the head of the Russian Duma's international affairs committee, Leonid Slutsky, was quoted by Ria Novosti earlier this week as saying any such move or discussion would be premature.

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