‘Realpolitik’ and International Refugee Law

Lara Kajs | 23 March 2016 |

In direct conflict with international refugee law, a deal between the European Union and Turkey went into effect on 20 March that allows all unapproved migrants and refugees to be sent back to Turkey. The plan calls for “one in and one out.” In exchange for keeping refugees, Turkey will receive $3.3 billion in financial aid, as well as passport-free travel in the Schengen zones and accelerated EU membership talks.

Humanitarian and human rights groups began speaking out immediately, claiming that the deal is a stumbling block to the right to seek asylum. However, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu argued that the deal would not interfere with refugees legitimately seeking shelter in Europe. But the United Nations and rights groups caution that the EU-Turkey deal is counter to international humanitarian law. UNHCR’s Europe regional director, Vincent Cochetel said that “The collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Return Policy

According to the European Commission, the purpose of the deal is to end the large-scale arrival of more than a million people fleeing war and conflict in the Middle East Northern Africa (MENA) region since January 2015. A strong supporter of the plan is German Chancellor Angela Merkel who is looking for a return to normalcy. Germany has received more than a million Afghans, Syrians, and Iraqis since the displacements began.

The new deal calls for the EU to admit one refugee from Turkey for each Syrian it returns. According to the agreement, for each Syrian returned, a Syrian refugee will be resettled in the EU. Displaced persons attempting the dangerous sea route after 20 March would be forcibly returned to Turkey and to the back of the line. The maximum number of Syrians to be resettled is 72,000.

The general idea is to persuade displaced persons that they have better options in Turkey and to follow a particular path to migration. The problem with this deal is that at least 91 percent of the displaced persons arriving in Greece are Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis running for their lives due to war and conflict or because of human rights violations in their home countries. They have not left their country in search of better economic opportunities, but due to conflicts that are unsettled. Not everyone is in agreement with how to address the largest refugee crisis since World War II. In 2015, more than a million people made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. In the first quarter of 2016, at least 142,000 arrived on the shores of Greece, the largest numbers arriving on the island of Lesbos.

Leaders believe that the deal will bring normalcy to Europe, but others argue that it will lead to even more rights violations and set a precedent to allow for mass expulsions and hinder the asylum process. Of further concern, it is still unclear how refugees will be returned and what of the unaccompanied minors. Will they be returned as well?

Protecting the Rights of Refugees

There are many reasons why the EU-Turkey deal is not just a bad idea, but a channel to grave human rights violations. First of all, forcible mass expulsions are against the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. Article 19 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights explicitly states that “collective expulsions are forbidden”. Add to this the fact that Turkey’s human rights record is not without blemish. It is no secret that Turkey has been turning away Syrian refugees at the border and forcibly expelling them back into war-torn Syria for several years.

However, considering that the deal calls for the EU to pay Turkey to act as a ‘middleman’ to thwart the flow of refugees into Europe; it appears that the goal of the scheme is to guarantee that Europe does not have to admit any more refugees. This is egregious.

It is reckless that the EU would agree to align itself with the deal or that Turkey thinks it can single-handedly resolve the refugee crisis. Without proper legal safeguards in place that protect refugees and asylum seekers, a one-for-one deal is flawed. As European Union leaders are anxious to halt the flow of refugees, it is irresponsible to do so at the expense of the human rights of the people they are trying to stop.

In a statement to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said, “I am deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law.”

He is not alone in his concern. Since the EU-Turkey deal went into effect, UNHCR has changed its role in the humanitarian crisis, stating that forced detention is counter to UN policy. UNHCR representative Melissa Fleming said that the organization would still hold a monitoring presence to ensure that the human rights of refugees were upheld, as well as to provide information on asylum procedures. Shortly after the announcement by UNHCR, several other humanitarian organizations including Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and the Norwegian Refugee Council also suspended support.

Photo Credit: Syrian refugees arrive in Lesbos Greece. Freedom House – Licensed under CC 2.0 license.