Thursday

9th Feb 2023

UN blows hole in Greek asylum 'suspension'

  • Fortress Greece: How many of the four million refugees in Turkey will go to EU? (Photo: u07ch)

Greece cannot waive its obligation to help asylum seekers by citing EU protocols, the UN has pointed out.

"As of now, we will not be accepting any new asylum applications for one month. We are invoking article 78.3 of the TFEU [EU treaty] to ensure full European support," Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced on Sunday (1 March).

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He also closed the border and sent the army to keep people out.

Article 78.3 lays out how the EU handles asylum in "emergency situations".

But "it cannot suspend the internationally-recognised right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement that are also emphasised in EU law," the UN Refugee Agency said on Monday.

"Neither the 1951 [UN] convention relating to the status of refugees nor EU refugee law provide any legal basis for the suspension of the reception of asylum applications," it said.

This meant that "even people who entered [Greece] irregularly should be allowed access, without any bias, to a fair and fast asylum procedure," a UN spokesman also told EUobserver.

Mitsotakis suspended asylum after Turkey told migrants they were free to go to Europe.

Turkey took the step, breaking an existing EU deal, to protest against lack of support in Syria, where Syrian and Russian forces recently pushed almost one million people to the Turkish border.

The new crisis claimed its first victim when a four-year old Syrian boy died on Monday after a dinghy overturned near the Greek island of Lesbos.

And the UN urged authorities to "refrain from the use of excessive or disproportionate force".

People on the Greek-Turkey border were "Syrians, Afghans, Iranians, Sudanese, and other nationalities, including women, children, and families, arriving in precarious conditions", it said.

They were "stranded in a no-man's land at the [EU] borders without access to food, shelter, and medical care", international charity Oxfam said.

The Greek asylum suspension was "reminiscent of the disastrous lack of leadership in 2015/2016, when no government in Europe wanted to take responsibility for people in need", Oxfam added, referring to the 2015 refugee crisis, when one million people entered the EU.

The Greek suspension was "a blatant breach of EU and international law that will put lives at risk", Amnesty, another charity, said.

"People fleeing persecution have a right to seek asylum. It shouldn't be 'suspended'," Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, an international NGO, also said.

For its part, the European Commission said the war in Syria meant people should not be pushed back there.

But EU institutions, as well as Greek police, who used tear gas this weekend to repel people from the border, were also interested in staying in control.

Frontex, the EU border agency in Warsaw, said on Monday it would launch a "rapid border intervention," which could see up to 1,500 extra guards from other EU states sent to Greek sea borders to help with migrant screening and registration.

"Our core mission is to protect the common borders of the European Union," Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri said.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how many of the almost four million refugees and other migrants living in Turkey try to go to Europe.

War of words and numbers

The UN maintained its estimate on Monday that some 13,000 people had gone to the Greek-Turkish land border and 1,200 had arrived on Greek islands since Turkey gave the green light.

Greece said 10,000 people had been stopped trying to cross its land border in the past 24 hours.

And the vast majority of those had "nothing to do with Idlib", a Greek government source told EUobserver, referring to a war-torn region in Syria.

Greece accused Turkey of a "disinformation campaign" on Sunday when Turkish interior minister Süleyman Soylu said on Twitter that 76,358 migrants had left.

But Soylu increased his figure to 117,677 on Monday.

"Hundreds of thousands have crossed, soon it will reach millions", Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also said on Monday on TV.

A viral video clip purporting to show a Syrian man shot dead by Greek police was more "fake news", a Greek government spokesman said.

"We call upon everyone to use caution when reporting news that furthers Turkish propaganda," the Greek spokesman said.

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