New EU refugee stance only ‘pays lip service’ to international law

Zoe Gardner condemns another flawed refugee policy and calls for a 180 degree change in thinking

20th March 2016

refugee crisis

There is nothing humanitarian about the new EU-Turkey migrant deal, which effectively aims to put the suffering of refugees out of sight of Europeans, rather than to actively alleviate it through a well funded resettlement programme. The deal contradicts the lip service it pays to respecting international law and the human rights of refugees by designating – against all evidence – Turkey as a “safe country” for asylum seekers. Its terms are immoral and, in all likelihood, illegal. Most importantly, it will be utterly ineffective in achieving its aims and is likely to lead to the loss of more human lives at sea, not fewer.

The one seemingly positive element of the deal – the promise to resettle Syrian refugees from Turkey to Europe – is fundamentally flawed in three respects. Firstly, it relies on the utterly inhumane “one-in-one-out” principle whereby a resettlement place for one refugee is dependent on another risking their lives at sea; secondly, it entirely ignores the reality that not all refugees are Syrian and makes no provision to offer safe alternative routes to Europe for non-Syrian refugees (who are also less likely to be treated with dignity in Turkey and may be at risk of return to unsafe countries of origin); and, finally, it relies on EU members states voluntarily offering up resettlement places, and we’ve all already seen how well that works out in practice.

But the explicit negatives are even more worrying. By designating Turkey as a safe country of asylum, the EU is ignoring the fact that Turkish law does not provide for refugee protection to non-Europeans. While member states have argued that Turkey does provide safe haven to refugees from Syria in practice, this is not a secure status protected by law, and cannot be considered sufficient safe-guard for refugees, especially non-Syrians. Furthermore, although Turkey should be credited with sheltering many times more refugees from Syria than the whole of Europe has managed to do, there are serious concerns in some areas, including reports of some Syrians being forcibly returned by Turkish authorities. Conditions in Turkish detention do not meet EU standards, and there is little access to legal remedies or protection procedures. It is highly likely that returns of asylum seekers to Turkey will be challenged in the European courts on these grounds, but that process is slow, and in the mean time the suffering of refugees still continues.

Download and distribute our 'Is Europe full up?' leaflet on the refugee crisis

Download and distribute our ‘Is Europe full up?’ leaflet on the refugee crisis

The most important failing of the EU-Turkey deal, however, is that it will be totally ineffective. Far from “disrupting the business model” of human smugglers, it will vastly empower them. Smugglers’ networks are able to move and adapt far quicker than EU Summits are. A Syrian family returned to Turkey under this agreement, it has been said, will be sent to the “back of the queue” for resettlement to Europe. If you imagine being in that situation for one moment you can see the problem: would you wait in Turkey, at the “back of the queue” of 2.7 million others, or would you entrust your family’s safety and, most likely your life savings, to a smuggler to bring you to Libya and get on another boat to try again? In the last week, since this deal has been discussed in the press, we have already seen a surge in refugee departures from Libya and Egypt. These journeys are longer and far more perilous than crossings from Turkey to the Greek islands. Many, many more lives will be lost on these routes because human beings are not cattle. They do not go and stay where they are told to, they have hopes and desire for life and a future with real prospects, which they are willing to take great risks to achieve.

Most shamefully of all, apart from condemning more men women and children to drowning at sea, is what the deal does not do. It does not open the European borders closed to refugees. It does not offer up any solution to the thousands of human beings living in freezing mud with no access to adequate food, shelter or sanitation at European borders. It does not make any serious effort to address the issue of dysfunctional asylum procedures across the EU, or put pressure on member states who are refusing to take on their share of responsibility. It does nothing to address the real problems that face people when they do get to Europe. And, let us be clear, they will still get to Europe. Until the EU members start to cooperate through investing in well-managed and dignified conditions in-which to receive refugee, this crisis will continue.

When, in six months, flows have shifted back to Egypt and Libya, drowned bodies are washing up in greater numbers on our shores and there are still desperate people camped out in squalor in Calais, Idomeni, and all over Europe, what then? Will the EU also designate Libya and Egypt safe countries? Will we also empower their corrupt and authoritarian governments (as we are with Erdogan’s Turkey)? Who will we even make such a dirty deal with in Libya, given it has no functioning government? EU leaders do not seem overly concerned. And leading the worst of them, as ever, is our own Prime Minister, David Cameron, who just this week has advocated illegal push-backs of refugee boats to war-torn Libya.

We cannot continue on this path. This deal must be scrapped. We need a response from our leaders that doesn’t insult the very notion of human rights and refugee protection.

That doesn’t kick real solutions for the people who are suffering right now in our own countries further down the road. We need a large-scale resettlement project to provide a real hope of safe routes to refugees in Turkey. We need to enforce European legal standards regarding the treatment of refugees on every EU member state. We need a system to equitably distribute asylum seekers across all EU countries and that needs to be mandatory if, as we have seen, states otherwise cannot be trusted to implement it. These are real solutions, and the urgency with which they’re needed is growing.