“Serious Concern” over Collective Expulsion of Refugees, Migrants

Human Wrongs Watch

The top United Nations human rights official on 24 March 2016 expressed serious concern over the recent accord between the European Union (EU) and Turkey to stem the large-scale flow of refugees and migrants into Greece and Europe, stressing that individual cases must be assessed adequately to avoid a “collective expulsion.”

In March 2016, despite border restrictions in the Balkans, the influx of refugees and migrants to Idomeni, Greece, has continued. Photo: UNICEF/UN012804/Georgiev

“The declared aim to return all refugees and migrants contrasts with the assurances about individual assessments,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a press release, pointing to what he termed “a contradiction at the heart of the agreement.”

“If the safeguards are to be considered real, then the individual assessments must allow for the possibility that the persons in question will not in fact be returned. Otherwise it could still qualify as a collective expulsion,” he added.

The provisions agreed by the EU and Turkey call for cases to be processed under the EU’s Asylum Procedures Directive, and goes on to state that “migrants not applying for asylum or whose application has been found unfounded or inadmissible in accordance with the said directive will be returned to Turkey.”

Zeid expressed concern that this language presents a real risk of overlooking human rights law obligations, which require States to examine arguments against return beyond those found in refugee law.

He said that such needs could arise, for example, in the case of children; victims of violence, rape, trauma and torture; individuals with specific sexual orientation; persons with disabilities; and a range of others with legitimate individual protection needs.

He urged Greece to handle all individual cases with genuine attention to all protection grounds required under international human rights law, including at the appeals stage.

Zeid also echoed the strong concerns expressed earlier this week by the Office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) over the use of detention for all new arrivals in the Greek islands, including children and other vulnerable persons.

That appears to contravene a range of international and EU human rights laws and standards, including that immigration detention should be a measure of last resort, and the principle of “best interests of the child,” he said.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has emphasized that children should never be detained on the basis of their migration status or that of their parents.

“This crisis is manageable if the EU acts on the basis of its own well-established and greatly respected laws and principles, and invests seriously in addressing root causes and supporting comprehensive solutions on the basis of international human rights treaties they have ratified,” Zeid said.

“However, if the EU starts to circumvent international law, there could be a deeply problematic knock-on effect in other parts of the world.”

UN Refugee Agency Redefines Role in Greece as EU-Turkey Deal Comes into Effect 

On 22 March 2016, the United Nations refugee agency announced that it is “not a party” to the new provisions agreed between the European Union (EU) and Turkey to stem the large-scale flow of refugees and migrants into Greece and Europe, and that it will align its work to cope with the deal.


Greek volunteer life-guards help a young child out of a boat that reached the shores of Lesbos, having crossed the Aegean sea from Turkey. Photo: UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

Till now, the Office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been supporting the authorities in the so-called “hotspots” on the Greek islands, where refugees and migrants were received, assisted, and registered.

Under the EU-Turkey deal, which came into effect this past Sunday [20 March 2016], these sites have now become detention facilities, and all new “irregular” migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands will be returned to Turkey.

UNHCR has a policy on opposing mandatory detention. Accordingly, it has suspended some of activities at all closed centres on the islands, including provision of transport to and from these sites.

“UNHCR is not a party to the EU-Turkey deal, nor will we be involved in returns or detention,” the agency said in a press release. “We will continue to assist the Greek authorities to develop an adequate reception capacity.”

UNHCR’s new role in Greece

Going forward, UNHCR will focus on protection monitoring to ensure that refugee and human rights standards are upheld, and provide information on the rights and procedures to seek asylum.

UNHCR staff are identifying people with specific needs and will continue to be present at the shoreline and sea port to provide life-saving assistance, including transport to hospitals where needed. They are counselling new arrivals on asylum in Greece, including on family reunification and on access to services.

UNHCR expressed concern that the EU-Turkey deal is being implemented before the required safeguards are in place in Greece, noting that Greece does not have sufficient capacity on the islands for assessing asylum claims, nor the proper conditions to accommodate people decently and safely pending an examination of their cases.

The Greek authorities have already separated an estimated 8,000 refugees and migrants who had arrived on the islands before 20 March from people arriving after that date and therefore will be subject to the new return policy.

Uncertainty is making the new arrivals nervous, the agency said. Many still hope that the border will open. Many have run out of money.

There is also an urgent need for information. The Greek police have been distributing leaflets in Arabic and Persian informing people that the border is closed and advising them to go to camps where better conditions are provided. But the capacity of nearby camps has been reached, and more camps need to be opened including for candidates for relocation. (Source: UN).

2016 Human Wrongs Watch

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