Tuesday 21 November 2017

Human rights groups slam EU-Turkey deal as 'farce'

Amnesty International: Europe is turning its back on the global refugee crisis

NATIONS UNDER CANVAS: Refugee children walk along railway tracks at a makeshift migrant camp in the northern Greek border post of Idomeni. Photo: Boris Grdanoski
NATIONS UNDER CANVAS: Refugee children walk along railway tracks at a makeshift migrant camp in the northern Greek border post of Idomeni. Photo: Boris Grdanoski

Lorne Cook

Europe's refugee resettlement programme with Turkey appeared to be descending into farce last night as officials on the Greek island of Lesbos claimed to have received no instructions from the EU authorities on how to proceed.

As the midnight deadline approached for the EU's new deportation regime, organisations and local authorities on the Greek island, where the majority of boats arrive, said not a single new staff member had arrived and no information had been received.

"We don't know anything," said Marios Andriotis, adviser to the mayor of Lesbos. "We have received many officers from the EU border agency Frontex over the past year, but no one new since Friday. And nobody told us to prepare anything or do anything differently."

While Boris Cheshirkov, a spokesman for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said: "We have taken note of the deal but we are not privy to details of the implementation."

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, described the controversial plan last week as a "Herculean task" that would present "the biggest challenge the EU has ever faced".

Under the terms of the deal agreed last Friday, 4,000 extra staff have been promised to process all new refugees who will be deported back to Turkey after undergoing fast-track asylum processing. The first deportations are scheduled for April 4.

The Greek authorities said yesterday there are now 47,500 migrants in the country, of which 8,200 were on the islands and 10,500 massed at Idomeni, on the closed border with Macedonia.

NGO workers and volunteers in reception camps on Lesbos, which will serve as detention camps for migrants and refugees waiting to be returned to Turkey, shook their heads when asked about the implementation of the deal.

"Like the husband of an unfaithful wife, we will always be the last to know anything about Europe's deals," said a UNHCR worker in Kara Tepe camp, where 1,500 Syrians and Iraqis are staying. "Really, we have no information."

Refugees in the camp called the idea of being returned "inhumane", while Amnesty International condemned the deal as a "historic blow to human rights". This raises the prospect of future legal challenges to the deal, which the EU insists is lawful.

Those now on Lesbos will not be sent back. However, with Macedonia's border still closed, they face an uncertain road ahead.

"There is nothing for us in Turkey. No life, no work. I worked bad jobs for 700 lira (€200) a month, I could not put a roof over my family's head," said Samir, a teacher from Damascus, who had been in the camp five days. "If they told me to go back, I would drown myself in the sea."

In Moria camp, hundreds of mainly Pakistani migrants are housed in tents on a field outside the sealed-off EU "hotspot", the official reception camp. Camp volunteers debated how to break the news of the deportations to tomorrow's arrivals.

"They'll just try again," said one US volunteer. "I don't think people will give up."

Andreas Ashikalis, one of the overflow camp co-ordinators, said: "I believe that over the next 24 hours they'll evacuate the refugees already on the island to the mainland, but I'm not sure. It's very confusing. We just hope they give us some sort of heads-up and that there will be no violence."

Meanwhile in Idomeni, on Greece's northern border with Macedonia, more than 10,000 refugees remain stranded in a squalid encampment at Idomeni, apparently still hoping against hope that the border crossing will be opened.

Earlier this month, the gates closed, leaving about 14,000 refugees and migrants stuck on the Greek side, in an area that heavy rains quickly turned into a quagmire.

At the tent city that has sprung up as more and more refugees become backed up there, refugees protest near the border fence, crying "open the border" or calling on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to help them. At the height of the protests, children have been forced to run to avoid tear gas fired by Macedonian police.

Local NGO sources last night said there were no obvious signs that the refugees were heeding calls to move to purpose-built holding camps where conditions are better.

"It's incredible how long hope lives on. It's a psychological thing - they feel they should stay near the border," said Caroline Haga, of the Red Cross.



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