“I sleep on a mattress on the floor in a cell with five other people,” Noori* told me last December when I met him at the police station on the Greek island of Lesbos (Lesvos), where he has been detained for the past six months. “I have nothing to read in my language. I have not been given a clean blanket since my arrest.”
Three months on and Noori, an asylum seeker from Syria, is still there. It might seem like the world has forgotten about this softly spoken 21-year-old. But his case challenging his deportation to Turkey has wound its way to Greece’s highest administrative court. The verdict, expected in the next two months, will not only determine his fate but the future of the E.U.-Turkey migration deal as a whole.
Noori, a nursing student, fled Syria in June 2016, reaching Turkey on his fourth attempt. He stayed there for a month-and-a-half but did not feel secure in the country. His aim was to travel on to Europe, where he has relatives, so he did not apply for asylum, but continued on to Lesbos, where he applied for asylum days after arriving. Greece declared his application “inadmissible” and he was arrested. In response to his case, a Greek administrative court is now deciding whether to uphold an earlier ruling that Turkey is safe.
If the court rejects Noori’s application, he could be returned to Turkey and a precedent would be set that could open the floodgates for further reckless returns.
Europe’s Year of Shame
Exactly a year ago, the EU-Turkey deal came into force. Two earlier days European leaders had met in Brussels and, blithely disregarding their international obligations, agreed that every person arriving irregularly on Greek islands – including asylum-seekers – should be returned to Turkey.
In exchange, Turkey would receive 6 billion euros to assist the vast refugee community hosted in the country, Turkish nationals would be granted visa-free travel to Europe and, once the number of irregular arrivals dropped, a “voluntary” humanitarian scheme to transfer Syrians from Turkey to other European countries would be activated.
However, the premise on which the deal was constructed – namely that Turkey is a safe place for refugees – was flawed. In the months following the deal, Greece’s asylum appeals committees ruled in many instances that Turkey does not provide effective protection for refugees.
Instead, all asylum applications had to be assessed in Greece and refugees were corralled on the Greek islands in squalid and unsafe conditions.
Since June 2016, however, new Greek asylum appeals committees have decided that Turkey is no longer “unsafe” for returnees. The validity of this assessment is at the heart of Noori’s court case.
Over the past year, European leaders have sought to portray the E.U.-Turkey deal as a success, with some even touting it as a model to be replicated elsewhere. To these leaders, the only thing that matters is that the number of irregular arrivals to Europe has fallen significantly, even in the short term.
Other parts of the deal – for instance, the promise of a meaningful, safe and legal way out of Turkey – largely remain unfulfilled. As of March 17, 2017, the number of Syrian refugees transferred from Turkey to E.U. member states was 4,195 – a number made even more negligible when contrasted against the 2.8 million Syrians currently in Turkey.
On the Greek islands, the harrowing human cost of the deal is laid bare. Not allowed to leave, thousands of asylum seekers live in a tortuous limbo. Women, men and children languish in inhumane conditions, sleeping in flimsy tents, braving the snow – and are sometimes the victims of violent hate crimes.
Five refugees on Lesbos, including a child, have died amid such conditions. After the deaths of three men in Moria camp in January 2017, one man living there told Amnesty International, “This is a grave for humans. It is hell.” Another 20-year-old Syrian refugee said, “I escaped Syria to avoid jail but now I am imprisoned.”
Over the past 12 months, Amnesty International has documented how some Syrian asylum seekers have been forcibly returned to Turkey without having access to asylum and without being able to appeal against their return, in breach of international law. Others have “voluntarily” returned to Turkey because of the misery on the Greek islands.
In Turkey, Syrian refugees receive temporary protection, but are left to fend for themselves. Turkey denies full refugee status to non-Europeans and the conditions in the country have shown it is unable to provide effective protection as required under international law. This means that the 3 million refugees in the country, virtually all of whom are non-European, have no way to be self-reliant. Struggling to meet people’s basic needs, the Turkish authorities are failing to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are able to live in dignity.
Amnesty International has also documented that Turkey has returned asylum seekers and refugees to countries where they risk serious human rights violations, such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is clear that instead of trying to return asylum seekers and refugees to Turkey, the E.U. should work with the Greek authorities to urgently transfer them to mainland Greece for their cases to be processed. E.U. governments should be providing safe and legal ways for asylum seekers like Noori to reach other European countries; these include relocation, family reunification or humanitarian visas.
The E.U.-Turkey deal could flounder on political grounds any day now. Last summer, the president of the European Commission acknowledged that the agreement was fragile and could fail. This week, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, reiterated the country’s threat to unilaterally cancel the deal amid its diplomatic spat with the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, the legal basis of the deal could be affected by Noori’s case, which will determine whether Turkey is safe for him and other vulnerable asylum seekers.
Noori, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and suffers from scabies as a result of the dire detention conditions, has become an unwilling historic figure in the refugee crisis. But, in the isolation of his cell on Lesbos, this has little meaning.
“If I were released I would like to continue my education,” he told me. “And I would like find out how my mother is.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.
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