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This World Refugee Week, we need to examine EU policy and how it violates the rights of refugees and migrants more closely
Imagine you become a migrant tomorrow. It isn’t as improbable as you might think. Most of us are just one natural disaster away from losing our homes and livelihoods. Look at what happened recently to tens of thousands of people in Alberta, a province of Canada, after the country’s biggest wildfire in history forced entire communities to flee their homes, seeking safety and shelter elsewhere.
What if those people were turned away from neighbouring towns, cities, provinces and countries? What if they were forced to go back as the fire was still raging? It seems inhumane, yet that is exactly what can happen now in Europe under a recent agreement between Brussels and Ankara negotiated first by Angela Merkel with Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
This World Refugee Week, we are called to remember the suffering of asylum seekers around the globe. I wonder though how many of us will notice that the occasion marks exactly two months since the European Union has decided to implement a fundamentally flawed plan to reduce the influx of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa.
The deal between Brussels and Ankara facilitates the deportation of asylum seekers and refugees back to Turkey in exchange for EU accession talks, financial and political incentives.
The plan has been condemned by human rights groups across Europe as cynical, inhumane and ineffective. But there is something more fundamental to it: it is a violation of European and international law, and it leaves asylum seekers vulnerable to discrimination, unlawful detention and a possible return to the very countries they fled in fear.
An upcoming report by TrustLaw, the pro bono legal program of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, finds several legal flaws in this controversial accord, including the arbitrary designation of a third country – in this case, Turkey– as a safe state for all asylum seekers.
The 1951 Refugee Convention states clearly that asylum seekers can be transferred to “Safe Third Countries” as long as their human rights are protected and they are not at risk of danger, persecution or being sent back by force to the country they fled.
The facts on the ground in Turkey seem to indicate otherwise. According to Human Rights Watch, between March and April, Turkish border guards have shot and beaten Syrian asylum seekers trying to reach Turkey, killing at least five people, including a child.
Human Rights Watch has also reported that many Syrian refugees in Turkey face difficulties when registering for temporary protection and when trying to obtain identification cards required to work and access health care, and schools. “Turkey cannot be considered a safe country for non-European refugees and asylum seekers because it does not provide effective protection,” the group concluded.
More than 1.2 million refugees have arrived in Europe since 2015, half of them Syrian. These men, women and children have left everything behind. As they leave, most of them take one thing they consider crucial: the key to their home. Do you think they will ever have the chance to use that key again and return to their property? Will their home still be standing? These people have lost everything to save their families from hell: war, bombardment, rape and human trafficking. They risked their lives to reach the shores of Europe where they hoped for a safe heaven.
Years ago they would probably have found a temporary home, even if this home was a camp. Today, they are pushed around from one camp to another like a package that nobody wants. A ‘dangerous’ package in fact, considering how islamophobia is rising across Europe.
There is strong evidence of discrimination within the camps where refugees live. According to the TrustLaw research and the best NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières, refugees at camps in Greece are ordered to line up according to nationality, and then given access to different information and services. Since when does the law authorize us to choose among nationalities reaching our shores? Since when can we arbitrarily decide that these ones can get in, those ones must go back and these other ones can wait? These actions are in violation of international discrimination laws and the EU Charter of Rights, which bans discrimination on grounds of religion or ethnicity.
The consequences of this ‘selection’ are dramatic. In April, a Pakistani man, terrified at the prospect of deportation to Turkey - and eventual return to Pakistan - threatened to hang himself to an electricity pole at the Moria registration centre in Lesbos. The dramatic images capturing his desperate act went viral. At least two groups of Pakistanis were indeed sent back to Turkey in the first weeks of April, and on April 8, the Turkish parliament approved an agreement enabling Ankara to send home Pakistani migrants.
Earlier this month, three refugees – two men from Pakistan and one from Afghanistan - challenged the EU-Turkey deal in the European Court of Justice, arguing the same premise we found in our research: the Brussels-Ankara deal is illegal because it breaches their right to asylum and their right to be protected from being forced to go to a country where they may be treated inhumanely or even expelled to a war zone. They are currently in Greece awaiting deportation.
The UN’s human rights chief, Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein, has criticized EU states for their treatment of migrants, saying he’s seen a “worrying increase” in the number of migrants being detained in Greece and Italy. The detained include unaccompanied children who are placed in prison cells or centres ringed with barbed wires.
The situation has become so dramatic that Médecins Sans Frontières has announced last week that it will no longer take money from any member of the EU in protest at the way Europe has responded to the refugee crisis. The move could cost the organization some 60 million euros in lost funding.
On World Refugee Week, we should ask for solutions that put the rule of law behind migrants’ rights.
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