EU under fire over plan to send refugees back to Turkey
Human rights groups say new deal contravenes international law
The United Nations refugee agency said yesterday that the European Union's "quick-fix" deal to send refugees en masse back to Turkey would contravene their right to protection under European and international law.
European Union leaders welcomed Turkey's offer on Monday to take back all migrants who cross into Europe from its soil - and agreed in principle to Ankara's demands for more money, faster talks on EU membership and quicker visa-free travel in return.
Vincent Cochetel, Europe regional director of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said Europe's commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees over two years on a voluntary basis remained "very low".
"The collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under the European Convention of Human Rights," Mr Cochetel said at a news briefing in Geneva.
"An agreement that would be tantamount to a blanket return to a third country is not consistent with European law, not consistent with international law," he said.
Europe had not even fulfilled its agreement last September to relocate 66,000 refugees from Greece, redistributing only 600 to date within the bloc, Mr Cochetel said earlier.
"What didn't happen from Greece, will it happen from Turkey? We'll see, I have some doubts," he said on Swiss radio station RTS.
Turkey is home to nearly three million Syrian refugees, the largest number worldwide, but its acceptance rates for refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq were "very low", about 3pc, Mr Cochetel added.
"I hope that in the next 10 days a certain number of supplementary guarantees will be put in place so that people sent back to Turkey will have access to an examination of their request [for asylum]."
UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said: "Legal safeguards would need to govern any mechanism under which responsibility would be transferred for assessing an asylum claim."
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) voiced deep concerns about the agreement, noting that "too many details still remain unclear".
"The fundamental principle of 'do no harm' must apply every step of way," UNICEF spokeswoman Sarah Crowe told the briefing.
"That means first and foremost that children's right to claim international protection must be guaranteed.
"Children should not be returned if they face risks including detention, forced recruitment, trafficking or exploitation," Ms Crowe added.
Human rights group Amnesty International said that EU plans to designate Turkey as a safe country for migrants were "alarmingly short-sighted and inhumane" because Ankara does not properly care for refugees.
The head of the group's European office, Iverna McGowan, said that "Turkey has forcibly returned refugees to Syria and many refugees in the country live in desperate conditions without adequate housing." She said that "by no stretch of imagination can Turkey be considered a 'safe third country' that the EU can cosily outsource its obligations to."
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, said that Turkey will be in need of extra help if more migrants are sent back.
"We will need to bring relief to Turkey, and that means you have to be willing to take people in from Turkey" who will probably qualify for asylum, Mr Rutte said.
Amnesty International hit out at the EU leaders for using Turkey as a buffer to stop migrants, calling the move "a dangerous and deliberate ploy to shirk their responsibilities to people fleeing war and persecution."
Meanwhile, the EU is to ask Ireland to assist the migrant rescue mission with the dispatch within weeks of a fourth Naval Service vessel to the Mediterranean.
One of the first decisions facing the new government is to sanction the dispatch of LE Róisín or LE James Joyce to the Mediterranean as EU chiefs admitted that migrant numbers this year are expected to far exceed 2015 levels.
Soaring migrant numbers have already led to angry stand-offs in France, Greece and Macedonia as some EU member states desperately try to restrict admissions.
A navy vessel is now expected to be deployed to waters off north Africa within the next three weeks following a major EU summit on how to tackle the migration crisis. The summit, held in Brussels, was attended by the 28 EU leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Some estimate that more than one million people - most of them from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan - will attempt to enter Europe this year.