The Guardian — Parts of the EU-Turkey migration deal have effectively been suspended due to the withdrawal of Turkish liaison officers from Greek islands, according to the director of the UN refugee agency in Europe.
Created in March, the EU-Turkey pact aims to deter migration to Europe by ensuring the deportation of most people arriving in Greece from Turkey. In exchange for readmitting these migrants and increasing the policing of its borders, Turkey has been promised €6 bn and favourable visa conditions for Turks travelling to Europe.
European politicians fear the deal will collapse should negotiations over the visa liberalisation falter. But in reality the arrangement has already stalled due to the departure of Turkish police from Greece following the failed coup in Ankara in mid-July, the UNHCR’s Vincent Cochetel said.
“De facto some aspects of the deal are suspended,” Cochetel told the Guardian, echoing a warning he first made earlier in the month.
According to government protocol, deportations cannot take place without the presence of the police. “They are not back,” said Cochetel. “We understand that the Greek police and Frontex [the EU’s border agency] are re-establishing contact with their Turkish counterparts, but the dates keep changing, so we don’t know when cooperation will restart.”
UNHCR has lost access to the two main detention centres to which deportees are taken after returning to Turkey, casting a further cloud over the deal’s future. The EU has justified deporting people back to Turkey on the contentious basis that Turkey has a functioning asylum system, but the denial of access to UNHCR highlights one of the criticisms of this argument.
Following Turkey’s failed coup attempt, Cochetel said, “there were major disruptions to the major Turkish institutions. In the coastguards some of the senior officers were removed from their positions. The same happened in the [directorate for migration management]. Our key interlocutors have not been immune from the drive to remove [from Turkish institutions] members of the Gülen movement [which is accused of organising the attempted coup].”
Cochetel was hopeful that the EU-Turkey deal would hold, citing high-level discussions currently taking place between EU officials and Turkish politicians. “Some elements of the deal will be maintained,” he said.
Turkey’s complicity is not the only issue: Greek appeals boards have been reluctant to deport people back to Turkey, upholding challenges by several refugees.
Should either Greece fail to deport people back to Turkey, or Turkey refuse to accept them, European politicians fear there will be a renewed spike in migration to Greece. But the dire conditions for the 57,000 refugees currently stranded in Greece, following the closure in March of a humanitarian corridor that previously funnelled refugees from Greece to Germany, have also proved to be a deterrent.
Irregular migration continues by other routes through the Balkans, but arrival numbers to Greece have fallen drastically since March. In August there has been a marginal increase in people landing on Greek islands, prompting panicked headlines. But the rate has been in keeping with that of equivalent summer surges in 2014 and 2013, and a long way short of the unprecedented levels in 2015.
“It’s nothing compared to the level of last year, so I think the Turkish authorities are still doing something to stop people from leaving,” said Cochetel. “A few hundred [more arrivals per week] is not dramatic. It’s manageable.”
Nevertheless, even a small spike in arrivals exacerbates an already abject situation on the Greek islands, where the detention camps have been overcrowded for several months. Prior to the EU-Turkey deal, refugees could leave the islands for the Greek mainland within days, but now most are detained there, creating a logjam.
“The situation here is getting worse and worse,” said Methkal Khalawi, a Syrian former oil engineer stranded in squalid conditions on the island of Chios. “Yesterday 90 refugees arrived here to Chios, [and] a lot of them slept at the beach. There are no places for them, sadly.”