Council of Europe condemns EU's refugee deal with Turkey

Human rights body says agreement at worst breaks international law and progress on integrating refugees is ‘shamefully slow’

Europe’s leading human rights body has issued a stinging indictment of the EU’s refugee deal with Turkey, which it said at worst exceeds the limits of what is permissible under international law.

A report from the Council of Europe’s assembly listed numerous concerns on human rights, from keeping migrants in overcrowded and insanitary detention centres on the Greek islands to inadequate legal protection for people seeking to appeal against rejection of an asylum claim.

The report also condemned Europe’s “shamefully slow” progress on relocating refugees from Greece to other countries. Only 937 out of a promised 160,000 had been found homes as of March.

The EU-Turkey agreement “at best strains and at worst exceeds the limits of what is permissible under European and international law”, states the report by the Dutch parliamentarian Tineke Strik.

“Even on paper, it raises many serious questions of compatibility with basic norms on refugees’ and migrants’ rights. It has so far given every indication of being even more problematic in practice.”

The EU has faced a barrage of criticism about the bargain it struck with Turkey at a summit in March. Turkey, already hosting 3.1 million refugees, agreed to take back irregular migrants from Europe, in exchange for an end to visa restrictions, as well as progress on EU accession talks. European leaders also promised to resettle up to 72,000 Syrian refugees living in Turkey and provide €3bn (£2.3bn) in humanitarian funding.

The European commission brushed aside the latest criticism as it published its first assessment of the EU-Turkey deal, which came into force one month ago.

Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner in charge of migration, said the situation in Greece had improved and claimed the Council of Europe was “fully supportive” of EU policy.

He insisted no refugees were being sent back from Turkey to Syria, dismissing on-the-ground reports from Amnesty International that the European parliament wants investigated.

Some MEPs fear the deal risks tarnishing Europe’s moral authority further if EU officials fudge security and technical standards to meet Turkey’s demand of visa-free travel for its 79 million citizens by June.

Gaining visa-free access to the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone is one of the most valuable points for Turkey, but numerous hurdles have to be cleared. In the last two years, Ankara has met more than half of 72 EU benchmarks, including introducing security chips in passports, stepping up border controls and outlawing discrimination against minority groups.

Turkey has just 10 days to fulfil the remaining criteria if the EU is to grant visa-free travel by June.

Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, warned on Monday he might tear up the deal if the EU failed to deliver on visa-free travel. “I maintain my belief that, God willing, we will have the visa exemption in June. In the absence of that, then of course no one can expect Turkey to adhere to its commitments,” he said.

The European parliament and EU member states will have the final word on visa-free travel for Turkey, with a decision expected around the time of the UK’s EU referendum. Although Turkish citizens would not gain visa-free access to Britain, which is outside Schengen, the issue has already been seized on by Brexit campaigners.

The commission insists it will not offer any shortcuts to visa-free travel, although some MEPs are less convinced.

Kati Piri, a Dutch MEP on the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said the EU must not lower standards on the visa requirements in the haste to strike a deal.

Visa-free travel in the Schengen zone “has to be based on objective criteria and not on the fact that Turkey is threatening to blow up this deal if we don’t give this now”, she said. A supporter of visa-free travel for Turks, she said the current “highly political process” could “lead to disappointment for both sides”.

The MEP said the EU’s desperation to strike a deal with Turkey had given Ankara the impression it was beyond reproach.

Last week the European parliament passed a motion criticising the Turkish government for “significant backsliding” on freedom of expression and assembly in locking up journalists and closing down newspapers.

For now, Brussels officials are content to hail the deal as a success, citing a sharp fall in people arriving on the Greek islands.

Around 3,500 people arrived on the Greek islands in the final 11 days of March, compared with 22,900 who came during the first part of the month before the deal was in force.

The EU border agency Frontex said fewer than 100 people a day were arriving on the Greek islands in early April, compared with around 2,000 a day at the start of the year.

But rapid implementation has not been obvious on the EU side. So far only 103 Syrians out of the possible 72,000 have been resettled from Turkey into Europe under the one-for-one scheme. Only €187m of the EU’s €3bn humanitarian aid cheque has been distributed.

“This is not the large-scale resettlement that the Turkish people are hoping for” and the “money is taking a long time to be disbursed”, said Piri.

“People in Turkey are not silly; they see it is not a genuine commitment to Turkey and born out of necessity.”

Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the deal had another value for Turkey. “For the longest time the Turkish government had been frozen out; for five or six years [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan had not been invited to Brussels and had a very tense relationship with the US.

“All of a sudden that is secondary – I don’t want to say it is forgotten – but once again Turkey has a seat at the European table.

“That is the main value for the government in Ankara, a perceived sense of legitimacy on the international platform.”


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Greece insists refugee deportations will begin despite doubts over EU-Turkey deal
Operation due to begin on Monday on islands of Lesbos and Chios, but questions remain as to how it will be implemented

Helena Smith in Mytilene, Lesbos

03, Apr, 2016 @5:34 PM

Article image
Council of Europe vote puts pressure on Turkey over human rights
Pace votes to restart monitoring Turkey, a process it had relaxed in 2004, triggering furious reaction from Ankara

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

26, Apr, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
EU-Turkey refugee plan could be illegal, says UN official
Senior UN figure says deporting people without considering their asylum applications would break international law

Damien Gayle

02, Apr, 2016 @9:38 AM

Article image
Ai Weiwei says EU's refugee deal with Turkey is immoral
Unveiling work documenting his time on Lesbos, Chinese artist describes getting caught up in ‘shameful humanitarian crisis’

Mark Brown in Athens

19, May, 2016 @12:00 PM

Article image
EU-Turkey refugee deal: staff shortages and rights concerns pose twin threat
Greece calls for 20-fold increase in asylum officials as campaigners accuse Turkey of expelling refugees back to Syria

Patrick Kingsley in Istanbul

01, Apr, 2016 @3:23 PM

Article image
Angela Merkel to launch EU aid programme for Syrians on Turkey visit
German chancellor to visit camp and child protection centre with Ahmet Davutoğlu amid concerns over refugee deal

Patrick Kingsley in Gaziantep

23, Apr, 2016 @2:39 PM

Article image
Syrian refugee wins appeal against forced return to Turkey
Decision by Greek asylum service to overturn deportation order throws EU-Turkey migration deal into chaos

Apostolis Fotiadis and Helena Smith in Athens, and Patrick Kingsley in Istanbul

20, May, 2016 @3:48 PM

Article image
Refugees in Greece suffering after EU deal with Turkey, say NGOs
Oxfam and other groups tell of more than 14,000 trapped in abysmal conditions through ‘degrading asylum policies’

Helena Smith in Athens

17, Mar, 2017 @12:00 AM

Article image
Refugee crisis: What does the EU's deal with Turkey mean?
Agreement means all those arriving in Greece from Sunday can expect to be returned to Turkey

Patrick Kingsley Migration correspondent

18, Mar, 2016 @6:14 PM

Article image
The EU's dubious refugee deal
Bjarte Vandvik: The EU is paying Libya to deal with refugees seeking a new life in Europe. Can we trust Gaddafi's regime to look after them?

Bjarte Vandvik

20, Oct, 2010 @9:59 AM