Matthew Carter is CAFOD’s Humanitarian Director. He writes on the aid agency’s blog about a family who fled the conflict in Syria and took the dangerous sea journey to Greece.
Waleed, his wife and 4-year-old son borrowed money to make the journey. The short sea crossing cost them $1,850 and they shared their journey with 70 other people. Half way through, the boat started to rock very dangerously in the sea. Everyone was crying. They were picked up by the Greek police who rescued them and took them to Lesbos where they were staying at the Caritas Greece run accommodation centre before continuing their onward journey to Western Europe.
In 2015, more than 850,000 people made the perilous journey across the water from Turkey to Greece.
However, the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal would mean that if Waleed’s family had travelled in recent days, their experience would have been very different. Matthew Carter examines the alternative narrative:
Waleed, his wife and 4-year-old-son make the dangerous journey to Lesbos by sea. They are picked up by the Greek police before being taken to a closed detention centre run by the police and informed they could either claim asylum in Greece or be returned back to Turkey.
If Waleed was travelling now his journey would be halted at the edge of Europe. Since midnight on 20 March 2016, anyone arriving on the Greek islands by boat is transferred to a closed detention centre where they can either apply for asylum or await return to Turkey. Conditions inside the detention centres are poor and in some cases do not meet humanitarian standards. Many look like prisons, surrounded by barbed wire.
The “hotspot” centres distributed aid to refugees. But now that they have been converted from registration camps into detention centres “all NGOs and UN agencies have had to leave”.
The agreement has now divided the refugees in Greece into two distinct groups – those who arrived before 20 March who are on mainland Greece, and those who are being forcibly held on the Greek islands. Regardless of nationality and need for international protection, this latter group are subject to possible deportation back to Turkey after a fast-tracked asylum process. Meanwhile many refugees and migrants on the mainland are likely to seek to continue their journey by irregular and more dangerous means, unless they receive reassurance that both asylum and decent accommodation will soon be available to them.
The Turkey agreement sets an uneasy precedent for the response to refugee crises, as vulnerable human beings are traded for political benefits. The definition of an ‘irregular migrant’ is open to interpretation and many human rights agencies argue the deal may deny people the right to access asylum procedures and the right to fair treatment. There are concerns about the lack of safeguards in Turkey to prevent forced returns to Syria and other conflict zones which could be deemed in breach of refugee law. More broadly, there are fears that the deal will result in increased smuggling and alternative, less secure, migration routes.