Aid groups suspend work in Greece in opposition to EU-Turkey pact

A migrant girl shows a banner during a protest demanding the opening of the border between Greece and Macedonia in the northern Greek border station of Idomeni, Greece. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

The conversion of reception centers for refugees and migrants into detention facilities has led to the withdrawal of support by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Doctors Without Borders. An agreement struck last week between the European Union and Turkey to return people passing through the country and onward to Greece. It fundamentally shifts the response in Greece from supporting asylum seekers to detaining and returning people who arrive.

“UNHCR is concerned that the EU-Turkey deal is being implemented before the required safeguards are in place in Greece,” said spokeswoman Melissa Fleming, to the media. “At present, Greece does not have sufficient capacity on the islands for assessing asylum claims, nor the proper conditions to accommodate people decently and safely pending an examination of their cases.”

The agency will stay on to monitor the human rights situation for arriving migrants and refugees. Doctors Without Borders made a similar announcement with its pull out from the Lesvos transit camp. The Moria “hotspot” was a place to support and register arrivals, but it now is a center for relocating or returning migrants and refugees.

“We made the extremely difficult decision to end our activities in Moria because continuing to work inside would make us complicit in a system we consider to be both unfair and inhumane,” said Marie Elisabeth Ingres, Doctors Without Borders head of mission in Greece, in a statement. “We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalized for a mass expulsion operation, and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants.”

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Like UNHCR, the group will not stop all of its work on the island. It will continue to run the Mantamados transit center, carry out search and rescue missions at sea, and operate clinics on other parts of the island.

More than 1 million people, mostly refugees, have arrived in Greece since the start of 2015. Last week’s deal was the result of the increasing pressure on the country to take in and support all the arriving people. Nearly 1,000 people arrived in the country on Sunday and Monday, alone. Beginning this week, all migrants entering Greece by way of Turkey are to be returned. Asylum seekers will be processed and have the opportunity to enter Europe. The deal stipulates that for every Syrian returned to Turkey, one will be resettled from Turkey into the EU. Groups critical of the agreement say that it shifts the process from support to detention.

Its aim is to incentivize refugees to stay in Turkey and go through the asylum process there. Groups critical of the agreement say that it shifts the process from support to detention. And the deal may face legal challenges. EU law prevents the collective expulsion of aliens, something the deal recognizes and say it does not violate. Others disagree.

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Human Rights Watch reacted swiftly to the deal. Executive Director Kenneth Roth called it “a disturbing disregard for international law covering the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants,” in a letter to the leaders of EU countries. He is particularly concerned with the calls from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to establish a safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. With no plan to ensure refugee safety, the plan could restrict rights and put people in greater danger.

“A very different approach is needed. There is a compassionate and rights-based response that would better enable EU member states to manage migration and address security concerns,” said Roth.

The number of refugees in Greece exceeded 50,000 for the first time just ahead of the March 21 deadline. More than 1,600 people entered the country to beat the deadline and have a chance of making their way into Europe. With the deal in place, pressure is now on Turkey to prevent people from being smuggled across the Mediterranean sea and into Greece. For those arriving, they will have less support and face detention before being returned to Turkey.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.