Syrian refugee wins appeal against forced return to Turkey

Decision by Greek independent asylum service to overturn deportation order throws EU-Turkey migration deal into chaos

The EU-Turkey migration deal has been thrown further into chaos after an independent authority examining appeals claims in Greece ruled against sending a Syrian refugee back to Turkey, potentially creating a precedent for thousands of other similar cases.

In a landmark case, the appeals committee upheld the appeal of an asylum seeker who had been one of the first Syrians listed for deportation under the terms of the EU-Turkey deal.

In a document seen by the Guardian, a three-person appeals tribunal in Lesbos said Turkey would not give Syrian refugees the rights they were owed under international treaties and therefore overturned the applicant’s deportation order by a verdict of two to one. The case will now be re-assessed from scratch.

The committee’s conclusion stated: “The committee has judged that the temporary protection which could be offered by Turkey to the applicant, as a Syrian citizen, does not offer him rights equivalent to those required by the Geneva convention.”

The decision undermines the legal and practical basis for the EU-Turkey deal, which European leaders had hoped would deter refugees from sailing to Europe by ensuring the swift deportation of most people landing on the Greek islands.

After signing the deal on 18 March, EU officials claimed these deportations would be legally justified on the basis that Turkey respects refugee rights.

But the EU’s executive has little control over Greek asylum protocols. The committee rejected the logic of the EU-Turkey deal, citing some of the EU’s own previous directives as explanations for their decision.

While nearly 400 other asylum seekers have been returned to Turkey under the terms of the deal, no one of Syrian nationality had been sent back against their will – making Friday’s decision a watershed moment.

“At its very first test, the EU-Turkey deal crumbles,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s deputy Europe director.

The Greek government, which played no part in the independent decision, admitted the judgment had created “a very difficult situation”.

Greece’s deputy minister in charge of migration policy, Yannis Mouzalas, said by phone from Brussels: “I have only just learned of the decision by the appeals committee and I have to be in Greece to study it. They are, as you know, independent committees so it is very difficult for me to say anything – but if they think this way, we will have a very difficult situation.”

Such a decision goes against all the directives of the UN and UNHCR, Mouzalas claimed. “Really I don’t know how they arrived at it.”

UNHCR offered no immediate response, but has previously criticised the EU-Turkey deal, and resolved to play no part in it.

Greek media said it would be only a matter of time before the “bombshell” decision had the snowball effect of triggering an avalanche of similar asylum requests by other refugees, especially Syrians, detained on far-flung Aegean islands. Some 174 claims have been examined by appeals committees made up of asylum experts, lawyers and officials in Lesbos so far, with 100 being upheld, according to the Greek daily Kathimerini.

Government figures released on Friday showed 8,592 migrants and refugees were currently being held on the islands, often in squalid conditions.

The increased prospect of being allowed to stay in Greece, rather than being returned to Syria, could also spark a renewed wave of migration from Turkey. Deterred by the deal and by increased Turkish border protection, migrant numbers have dwindled significantly since the deal was announced.

Human rights groups were quick to welcome the news. “We’ve always said Turkey is not a safe country for refugees because it has not fully signed up to the Geneva convention and to the social and judicial status of refugees, especially those who are not Syrians,” said Wenzel Michalski, who as Germany director of Human Rights Watch watched the first forced returns of migrants from Lesbos to Turkey in April.

Pledges by Turkey to improve labour market regulations by facilitating work permits for refugees had not been delivered, nor had promises to install refugee children in the education system, he said. Even worse was evidence of push-backs at the Turkish-Syrian border where would-be refugees had been deliberately shot at and killed – claims denied by the Turkish government.

“There are still lots of children who work instead of going to school and even worse, we still don’t really know about the fate of those deported so far, as NGOs and journalists have been denied access to refugee camps and the first thing Turkish authorities did was to confiscate their smartphones,” he said from Berlin. “We have to say: ‘Greece, thank you,’ because this is a wonderful move.”


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

The GuardianTramp

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