Explained: The situation at Greece's borders

What’s happening at Greece’s borders with Turkey?

On 27 February 2020, Turkey announced that it would no longer stop refugees trying to cross its borders into Europe, which have been closed since 2016.

Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees – more than any other country. Since December 2019, hundreds of thousands more people have fled towards the closed Turkish border in Syria’s Idlib Province, where the Syrian government is bombarding civilians with airstrikes.

European and other countries have failed to share responsibility for hosting the women, men and children who have fled their homes in Syria. Turkey says it can no longer cope with the number of refugees it hosts.

So what’s happening at Greece’s borders with Turkey? An inevitable result of the Turkish announcement was that desperate people who had been unlawfully trapped in Turkey since at least 2016, rushed to border crossings that were newly re-opened – but only on one side. What people found when they arrived were heavily armed Greek border guards, tear gas, rubber bullets and razor wire.

How has Greece responded?

Greece has responded with a package of inhumane measures that violate EU and international law. Security forces have been firing tear gas and repelling dinghies trying to reach Greece’s shores.

The government has also temporarily suspended registration of asylum claims and said it will deport anyone who enters irregularly, without examining their cases. This is a violation of Greece’s responsibilities under the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees.

What is the EU-Turkey deal?

In March 2016 the EU and Turkey reached an agreement which aimed to return asylum-seekers who arrived on the Greek islands to Turkey. Turkey also agreed to prevent people leaving its territory for Europe. In return the EU has given Turkey billions of dollars.

This deal is deeply flawed, based on the false premise that Turkey is safe for asylum seekers.  Nonetheless, Greece’s asylum bodies have ruled in many cases that Turkey is a safe third country and provides effective protection to Syrian refugees and as a result many have been returned there.

Today thousands of women, men and children remain trapped in the Greek islands while they wait for a decision on their asylum claims. Many are sleeping in tents, braving cold weather and unsafe conditions.

How has the rest of Europe responded to the situation at the border?

EU leaders have openly supported Greece’s hostile approach. The President of the European Commission described Greece as Europe’s “shield” in deterring people from entering, and pledged to provide financial and material support along with the deployment of European border guards.

This rhetoric is extremely misleading. Europe doesn’t need to be shielded from people seeking safety. The refugees and migrants at the border are asking for help, and they are entitled to it under EU and international law.

Why can’t Syrian refugees stay in Turkey?

Life is extremely difficult for refugees in Turkey. One problem is that Turkey doesn’t fully subscribe to international refugee law. In Turkey, for example, only European people can qualify for refugee status; for everyone else, protection is limited or conditional and it is not possible to get secure legal status.

There are many other problems. Only 1.5% of working-age Syrian refugees have work permits, which means they are unemployed or vulnerable to exploitation in informal jobs. Many Syrian people are denied their right to register and access basic services, with many provinces having halted all registration, including Istanbul.

Amnesty has also documented the Turkish authorities forcing people to return to Syria – beating them or threatening them into signing documents stating that they are returning “voluntarily.”

With the prospect of being forced back to a war zone looming, it’s not surprising that refugees would try to move on from Turkey to a safer place.

Is everyone at the border Syrian?

No. There are people from many countries, all of whom have been living in or have travelled through Turkey.

Although the vast majority of refugees living in Turkey are from Syria, there are also large Afghan, Iraqi and Iranian populations. There are many reasons why they might want to leave Turkey for Europe. They might have family in other countries, or they might want to move somewhere they can work safely and legally.

The response to the Syrian crisis means resources have been diverted from other refugee populations in Turkey. For example, non-Syrian refugees are not allowed to live in Turkey’s large cities, such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. In 2019 the organization Refugees International said it was alarmed by Afghan refugees’ difficulty in obtaining the Turkish identity cards needed to access legal work and basic services such as healthcare, housing, and education.

Why should Europe take in people who are not fleeing war?

Imagine what it would take to leave behind your whole life – your house, your family, everyone you know – to move to a new country, taking a treacherous and uncertain route. This is not a decision anybody takes lightly, and it takes enormous courage and resourcefulness.

Regardless of the precise reason why people leave their homes, everyone deserves to be treated with compassion and dignity. Beyond war, asylum-seekers can have suffered persecution individually, on grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular group.

Media and far right politicians often perpetuate the toxic narrative that people want an “easy life” in Europe. In reality, across Europe, governments have adopted harsh policies towards migrants and refugees, often in contravention of their human rights obligations.

The focus on stopping people from trying to reach Europe from northern Africa and Turkey has resulted in rescue ships being impounded and humanitarian volunteers arrested. Borders have been sealed, leaving many refugees stranded in abysmal conditions on the Greek islands, or at risk of torture in Libyan detention centres.  

What does Amnesty think should happen?

Europe is not doing nearly enough to take its fair share of responsibility for refugees. Instead it has built a fortress to keep out people who are simply seeking safety or a better life. But walls won’t stop people from moving; they just increase the human cost.

Amnesty is calling on European governments to respect international law and ensure that all asylum-seekers have access to fair and effective asylum procedures. They must also stop unlawful border control practices, such as pushbacks, collective expulsions and unlawful return.

European states should help to immediately relocate asylum-seekers from the Greek islands, including via family and humanitarian visas.

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