ATHENS — Greece on Monday carried out the first deportations of migrants and refugees back to Turkey, under a controversial March 20 deal between the European Union and Ankara.
News footage showed the 202 deportees filing onto ferries on the islands of Lesvos, Chios and Samos without protest or incident in the blue early-morning light. They had decided not to seek asylum in Greece or protection elsewhere in the EU—the only two applications that could have kept them in this country legally.
The deportees’ apparent resignation to their fate comes as a senior Greek official says the EU is pressing Greece, in the interests of efficiency, to abolish guarantees designed to ensure that those in need of protection receive it.
“Various EU member states I won’t name… are putting unbearable pressure on us to reduce these guarantees,” Maria Stavropoulou, the director of Greece’s Asylum Service, told The Daily Beast.
“The average application now lasts three months, which doesn’t mean that we can’t also adjudicate in two or three weeks. But here we’re under pressure to do everything in, say, eight days,” Stavropoulou says.
“There are those who say that in their country everything gets done in two or three days. But the point here is not for one [EU member] to impose their low standards and policies. We are under pressure to do that—to implement restrictive practices, which in different times we would call bad practices.”
Most of the pressure, according to Stavropoulou, is coming from “countries that are very invested in the deal with Turkey working.” Germany, which received over a million asylum seekers last year, took a leading role in negotiations with Turkey during a tense two-day summit last month.
Greece’s 295 asylum staff are under pressure to process some 52,000 people stranded here since an overland route through the Balkans closed a month ago.
In the meantime, Greek authorities are concerned about growing unrest in three dozen refugee camps and tent cities around the country. In the last week alone, large groups of Afghan and Syrian young men have exchanged salvoes of rocks in the port of Piraeus and the camp of Elaionas, in central Athens; rioting among refugees on Samos left several with knife injuries.
To forestall frustration, the Asylum Service plans to visit camps and carry out mass registrations of asylum applicants in the coming weeks,“The point is to reassure them that sooner or later their asylum claim will be looked into,” says Stavropoulou.
In addition to this stagnant population, however, there are constant new arrivals of potential asylum applicants on the islands. The coast guard rescued more than 1,500 people in the last week alone.
The Greek Asylum Service has received a surge of 3,000 asylum applications from the islands this year, but as the refugee population there is double that figure, there is still scope for plenty more deportations.
The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) is sending 800 officers to help interview asylum applicants; but Greek officials will record applications and adjudicate claims, maintaining control of the process.
If it hasn’t resulted in erroneous deportations yet, the EU-Turkey agreement has rapidly led to deteriorating camp conditions on the islands. Until now, they operated as open camps. Under the agreement they are locked facilities. This has created overcrowding, as refugees outside the camp fences have been arrested and brought inside.
“It’s simply not acceptable to have a space in which you’re going to explain people’s rights to them where their freedom will be significantly restricted,” says Spyros Kouloheris, head of legal research at the Greek Council for Refugees, the country’s most respected legal aid NGO. “A person who is detained is operating under stress.”
“In line with its global policy on promoting alternatives to detention, UNHCR has had to suspend services at all closed facilities,” said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on April 1.
Kouloheris believes that detention and faster screening will produce a perfect storm of inhumanity.
“I’ve seen people two or three times before they agreed to tell me their story. There are people who won’t tell me the truth because they think that what they’ve done in their country is morally reprehensible,” he says. “Why should they feel safe?”
“This agreement comes into conflict with both the letter and the spirit of the Geneva Convention [on the status of refugees],” he concludes.
Europe’s asylum standards matter because the numbers there are greater than anywhere else in the world. Last year Europe received 1.4 million applications according to Eurostat. That dwarfs asylum applications to the United States: 134,000 in 2014, according to the UN. It also dwarfs Europe’s previous record of 672,000 after the collapse of Soviet communism.
Most of the controversy surrounding the deal is over whether Turkey constitutes a safe country for refugees. Turkey has ratified the 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees, but hasn’t extended its provisions to non-Europeans. As a result, it doesn’t provide refugees with work permits, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation on the black labor market.
The EU has asked Turkey to make necessary legal amendments, which Turkey says it has no intention of doing. In the meantime, though, the EU’s working assumption is that payments of $7 billion this year and next will induce it to do so.
Western concerns about security in Turkey are also clear. After three bombings this year, Germany issued a travel advisory last month warning its nationals to avoid public places and transport in Turkey, while the U.S. said last week it is pulling out the families of its military personnel there.
The United Nations has distanced itself from the deal. “UNHCR is not a party to the EU-Turkey deal, nor will we be involved in returns or detention,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming said two days after it was signed.
Greece has asked the EASO to produce a factual report on the status of refugees in Turkey, but that is not due until the end of May.
“EU policy—since it didn’t succeed in rolling the problem onto Greece’s back—is passing the entire problem on to Turkey,” says Andreas Takis, a law professor at the University of Thessaloniki who sits on the Greek Human Rights Committee.
Stavropoulou believes that Europe may ultimately rally to defend its values. Earlier this week, she and other EU officers agreed not to deport refugees who have family members on EU soil.
Others disagree. “I feel that a very important structure—the rule of law, our feeling of security, a public administration that acts in good faith—is collapsing,” says Kouloheris. “And what are we to do then?”