Greece: Court decisions pave way for first forcible returns of asylum-seekers under EU-Turkey deal
Two Syrian refugees are at risk of being forcibly returned to Turkey after Greece’s highest administrative court today rejected their final appeals against earlier rulings declaring their asylum claims inadmissible. This could set a dangerous precedent for future returns of asylum-seekers under the EU-Turkey deal, Amnesty International said.
The decisions by Greece’s “Council of State” come as Amnesty publishes new findings (attached) on unlawful returns from Turkey to Syria. These conclude that refugees and asylum-seekers in Turkey are at greater risk of being returned to their countries of origin since the start of last year’s state of emergency.
If the applicants - ‘Noori’, a 21-year-old nursing student, and ‘Afaaz’ - are deported it will be the first formal return of an asylum-seeker from Greece to Turkey on the basis that Turkey is a safe country, since the EU-Turkey deal came into force, in March 2016
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe Director, said:
“Today’s ruling sets an ominous precedent for many other asylum-seekers who have fled conflict and persecution and are currently stranded on the Greek islands. Syrian refugees currently in detention following the rejection of their appeals are particularly at risk.
‘’These decisions breach a very clear principle: Greece and the EU should not be sending asylum-seekers and refugees back to a country in which they cannot get effective protection.
“Today - for the first time since the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal - Greece, acting on behalf of the entire EU, took a conscious decision which will result in two refugees being sent to a country which is already struggling to meet the basic needs of almost three million other refugees.
“Until such time as asylum-seekers and refugees can be guaranteed effective protection in Turkey, EU countries must stop sending them there.”
Syrian refugees receive temporary protection in Turkey but many live in extreme poverty. While Turkey has taken more refugees from Syria than any other country, safeguards against sending refugees and asylum-seekers back to countries where they face human rights violations and abuses including violence, torture or even death, have been significantly reduced under Turkey’s current state of emergency.
There are also grave concerns about the treatment of those returned to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal. In a leaked letter last December, the UN Refugee Agency said that it has faced obstacles in monitoring the situation of Syrians returned to Turkey from Greece as it has not been granted unhindered access to pre-removal centers in Turkey where Syrian returnees from Greece are transferred.
Key test case
Greece’s Council of State found that the decisions of the Appeals Committees holding that Turkey is a safe third country for the two applicants were reasonable.
The Council of State also decided not to refer the cases to the European Court of Justice to determine the question as to whether Turkey can be considered a “safe third country” by a narrow majority of 13 votes to 12.
Legal changes introduced to Turkey’s Law on Foreigners and International Protection under the post-coup state of emergency, have increased the risk of refoulement, by removing the suspensive effect of appeals against deportation.
Amnesty’s research prior to the coup attempt last July already showed that Turkey could not be considered a safe country for asylum-seekers and refugees.
Non-Syrian asylum-seekers in Turkey do not have access to fair and efficient procedures for the determination of their status, or timely or adequate access to integration and resettlement.
“Noori” (not his real name) had to abandon his studies when the hospital he was studying at was bombed during the conflict in Syria. In April 2015, his village was hit and he saw several members of two neighbouring families die with his own eyes. He was close friends with the son of one of the families. He crossed into Turkey on 9 June 2016.
Noori told Amnesty that during his first two attempts to enter Turkey, he was apprehended and beaten by Turkish gendarmerie, before being sent back to Syria. On his third attempt, he said his group was attacked by an armed group and 11 of his companions were killed. He stayed in Turkey for a month-and-a-half. He was attacked and robbed twice by smugglers and thieves while in Turkey.
His asylum claim in Greece was found inadmissible by the Asylum Service on the premise that Turkey was a safe country for him. This decision was upheld by one of the new Appeals Committees. He challenged the Appeals Committee’s decision before the Council of State last September and in mid-February 2017, one of the court’s sections referred the case to the plenary because of the importance of the issues raised in Noori’s application.
On 10 March, the plenary heard Noori’s application, the applications of a second Syrian asylum-seeker and two Greek pro-refugee NGOs. The plenary was called to decide on whether Turkey is a ‘safe third country’ for the two asylum-seekers and the constitutionality of the composition of the new Appeals Committees.