Greece - Turkey: ‘The route is dangerous, people are dying’

The tragic limits of European migration policies

Tighter controls at the border between Greece and Turkey are forcing many people fleeing conflict to use increasingly dangerous routes. Migrants who manage to reach the EU border have been victims of push-backs and those who cross over into Greece are systematically detained on arrival, in inhuman and degrading conditions. The response of the European Union is to strengthen means of surveillance and interception. There is an urgent need to shift the focus away from criminalisation to the conditions of reception of migrants.

These are the conclusions of a fact-finding mission to Greece and Turkey, where our delegation was able to interview refugees and migrants and access several Greek detention centres. The delegation observed widespread violations of human rights at the borders, which cannot be ignored by the various bodies involved in migration control at the Greek-Turkish border.

In Greece, many victims report having been pushed back by Greek coastguards at sea or even upon reaching European soil [1]. These victims do not find their way into statistics. The delegation was able to meet with some of these invisible people, who gave details of acts of violence perpetrated by coastguards: ill-treatment (including of pregnant women and children), theft (jewellery, money, mobile phones), confiscation of identity papers which are often thrown overboard and boats pushed back towards Turkish coasts.

Reforms to migration and asylum laws are under-way, aimed at addressing systemic failures which have been repeatedly condemned by European courts. Yet, confusion reigns over responsibility for intercepted migrants. Those who manage to remain on Greek territory are systematically detained by the authorities, including unaccompanied minors awaiting identification – a practice for which Greece has recently been condemned. Migrants who are released are given an order to leave within 30 days. They have no rights on Greek territory. The rate of acceptance of asylum claims is very low and racist attacks are steadily increasing.

Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis, Sudanese, Eritreans, Syrians, Palestinians are trapped between Greece and Turkey. Both countries, with Europe’s support, use the presence of these populations as a justification for increasingly repressive border control policies.

In Turkey, the adoption of a new law on immigration and international protection, which will come into force in April 2014, has done little to alleviate concerns regarding violations of migrants’ human rights. Turkey maintains geographical reservations to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees, which exclude non-Europeans from asylum claims. Although it has been heralded as a sign progress, the new law reproduces many of the legal shortcomings of European law (increased use of accelerated procedures for asylum claims; detention of persons pending return for up to 12 months). These reforms are a sign that Turkey is taking a ’European turn’, without meeting international human rights obligations. Among the most serious violations: difficulty in accessing asylum procedures in particular for persons in detention centres, absence of laws on the protection of personal data, detention of minors and families, lack of access to legal aid. Since the first arrivals, the Turkish authorities have forcibly returned hundreds of Syrian refugees to Syria. The impact of the reform has been limited by structural failures to meet international obligations, but also by the fact that Turkey is forced to bear final responsibility for people who have no legal possibilities to enter the EU.

What is Europe doing? What is the position of the European Agency for border management, Frontex, and the European institutions behind it, as they witness and participate, at least indirectly, in these violations?

The EU’s support to Greece over the past several years on migration issues has been primarily focused on strengthening the presence of Frontex, at the sea and land borders between Greece and Turkey. However, the presence of Frontex has made no difference to the reception conditions of migrants. Nor has it addressed the risks for migrants taking this route, while human rights violations persist at the border.

The gravity of the situation of migrants in Turkey appears to be no obstacle to the EU’s negotiation of a readmission agreement with Turkey, the funding of detention centres, or future cooperation opportunities between Turkish authorities and Frontex.

Over the past few weeks, the tragedy that took place at the shores of Lampedusa seems to have raised awareness about the distress faced by migrants trying to reach the European continent. To address this situation, the EU is now considering increasing the capacity of Frontex. However, our organizations have tirelessly warned that the misery of migrants and the risky nature of the routes they take are linked to the lack of alternatives to access EU territory and to unsatisfactory reception conditions within European borders.

Increased border control does not save lives but leads instead to grave human rights violations and even deaths of women, men and children.

The mission report will be released in the first quarter of 2014.

FIDH, EMHRN, Migreurop.

NGOs supporting this press release: ABCDS Oujda (Morocco), AMDH (Mauritania), AMDH (Morocco), AME (Mali), ARACEM (Mali), ARCI (Italy), CIRÉ (Belgium), CNCD 11.11.11. (Belgium), Fasti (France), GADEM (Morocco), GISTI (France), GRAMI AC (network based in Cameroun), Justice Without Borders for Migrants (Euro african network), La Cimade (France), LDH Belgium, Progress Lawyer Network (Belgium)