Refugees in limbo as Europe stares into the 'moral abyss'
Faced with a refugee crisis that has divided Europe, the continent's leaders now appear to be on the verge of adopting a controversial approach which rights groups warn could betray the values the European project is supposedly anchored on.
After more than a year of unprecedented refugee flows, squabbling in Brussels over who should do what and far-right groups exploiting the resulting confusion, European leaders are mulling a proposed deal which would essentially amount to outsourcing the problem to Turkey.
At an EU-Turkey summit on Monday, the Turkish prime minister, Ahmed Davutoglu offered a "one in, one out" deal in return for concessions including financial assistance, an acceleration of the stalled talks on Turkey's accession to the EU and a visa waiver scheme for Turkish citizens from June.
Under the terms of the deal, which could yet flounder, all would-be refugees arriving in Greece would be forcibly returned to Turkey. For every Syrian sent back to Turkey from Greece, another Syrian would be accepted for resettlement in the EU and distributed under a quota system. Some EU states have tried to scupper efforts to introduce a resettlement quota.
The proposed EU-Turkey plan has prompted considerable unease among human rights groups, with many arguing it would constitute a violation of EU's signing of the UN's 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees. The convention defines who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states. The EU's own charter of fundamental rights specifically states that collective expulsions are forbidden.
"I am deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, told the European Parliament in Strasbourg the day after the EU-Turkey discussions.
"It's a really grim deal," John Dalhuisen, Europe director for Amnesty International, told 'The Guardian'. "It's being celebrated by people who are dancing on the grave of refugee protection. If it applied in its absolute sense, then the number of refugees that Europe would take would depend on the number of refugees prepared to risk their lives through other means - and that is staring at a moral abyss."
Filippo Grandi also sought to counter claims by European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans that 60pc of the arrivals to Europe were economic migrants. This argument has been made by several other figures across Europe, some of them either of the far-right or under political pressure from the far-right, as the debate over the exodus to the continent has grown increasingly bitter.
"This has been and essentially remains a refugee movement," Grandi told MEPs.
According to the UN, almost 140,000 would-be asylum seekers have arrived in southern Europe since the beginning of the year. Of those, two-thirds are women and children - a 41pc increase compared to last year, Grandi told the European Parliament.
The overwhelming majority, almost 90pc, come from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa. The vicious war that continues to tear Syria apart is the main driver of refugee flows in the region, with millions forced from the country. Most Syrian refugees have sought shelter in neighbouring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey - in comparison, the flows to Europe have been relatively small. After Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans constitute the largest groups seeking refuge in Europe but the mooted EU-Turkey deal only concerns Syrians.
The controversial proposal centres on whether Turkey, which already hosts some 2.7 million Syrian refugees, is considered a safe third country of origin. Rights groups accuse Turkey of a patchy application of the 1951 convention. Most Syrians there are not granted full refugee protection, but instead are given "temporary protection" status that keeps them in a limbo and prevents integration in the long-term. Turkey has also been accused of sending some refugees back to conflict zones, including Syria.
Other critics of the proposed deal are uncomfortable with the sweeteners offered to Turkey in exchange, given concerns over the country's drift towards authoritarianism. In their desperation to find a solution - or at least any solution that will not be costly to them domestically - to the refugee crisis on Europe's doorstep, some European leaders have shown they are willing to retreat from previous positions on what was required of Turkey to ensure its EU accession process continues.