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29th Feb 2024

Eight EU states press for more Turkey-style migrant swap deals

  • Over 25,000 people have died or gone missing while crossing the Mediterranean towards Europe since 2014 (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)
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Eight EU states are upping the political pressure to beef up borders and return rejected migrants, ahead of Thursday's (9 February) summit in Brussels.

In a joint letter sent earlier this week to the EU Commission and Council presidents, they also propose setting up new deals similar to a now defunct EU agreement with Turkey on returning refugees.

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"We suggest developing, and where relevant legally-enabling, safe third-country arrangements with relevant countries along the EU's external border and beyond," notes the letter.

The letter, which directly references the EU-Turkey statement, was signed by the leaders of Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Slovakia.

It also broadly reflects recently-leaked EU summits' conclusions that speak of the need "to increase the use of safe third countries and safe countries of origin concepts."

The 'safe third country' concept entails dispatching people back to places where they initially transited through.

Greek spanner

But a Greek case lodged last week at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) may complicate those plans.

Two years ago Greece declared Turkey safe enough to send back nationals from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria.

Since then, Greek authorities dismissed some 9,000 asylum applications even though three out of the five nationalities mentioned are those who are most often recognised as refugees in Greece. Most are left in limbo — in part, because Turkey has refused to taken anyone back since March 2020.

And the Greek designation of labelling Turkey as safe comes despite forced deportations of Afghans and Syrians by Turkish authorities as documented by Human Rights Watch.

The UN refugee agency has itself demanded the halt to all deportations to Afghanistan, in light of a Taliban crackdown and widespread poverty and misery.

The Greek case sent to the Luxembourg-court is spearheaded by the NGOs Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) and the Greek Council for Refugees.

"The referral of the Greek safe third country rules to the ECJ is a much needed reminder: policies based on denying protection to refugees are neither lawful nor sustainable for the EU," said Minos Mouzourakis, a legal officer at RSA.

The two NGOs lodged their case in October 2021, which end up at the Council of State, the supreme court in Greece.

The majority at the Council of State sided in favour of annulling the Greek list of safe third countries. They said that Turkey has a legal obligation to allow the readmission of asylum seekers.

But because Turkey has refused to do so since 2020 then EU asylum law must be applied. Turkey had also in 2018 suspended a bilateral readmission agreement with Greece.

That EU law refers to article 38(4) of the EU's asylum procedure directive, posing questions on the legality of the Greek safe third-country list.

It will now be up to European court in Luxembourg to decipher the legal wrangling. Whatever the outcome, the push to beef up external border controls and offshore policing, has come with a slew of critics.

Among them is Europe's human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatović.

Mijatović, in a statement, said the EU summit (9-10 February) comes in the context of years of steady decline in respect for the human rights of those attempting to reach Europe.

"They should break the silence over well-documented abuses by member states," she said of the EU member states.

Those abuses appear to have been compounded by derogations on EU asylum laws after Belarus and Turkey were accused of sending thousands of people along the borders in an effort to destabilise Europe.

The derogations are part of a so-called "instrumentalisation" regulation. Although the regulation was given short shrift in December by EU states, the Swedish EU presidency is pressing ahead with more restrictions.

Along with it are tired slogans of solidarity and their various iterations over the years. The latest, embedded in a leaked draft paper on a key migration reform proposal, now describes its as "adaptable solidarity".

The term suggests EU states can pick and choose from a "permanent migration support toolbox" when the number of irregular arrivals increases.

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