Migrants and asylum seekers gather on the Turkish side of the closed Kastanies/Pazarkule border crossing, on the borderline between Greece and Turkey on 02 March 2020 – DIMITRIS TOSIDIS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
The human rights situation at the border between Turkey and Greece where thousands of vulnerable men, women and children are trapped between borders without access to assistance or the possibility to seek international protection is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Urgent action is now needed to prevent the situation from getting even worse.
Everything must be done to de-escalate violence in the border region, including by ensuring that law enforcement authorities refrain from using excessive force.
All measures should be taken to assess the protection needs of those trapped, and to ensure access to asylum for those in need.
I call on Greece and Turkey, as well as all other member states involved, to ensure that humanitarian assistance is immediately provided to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants trapped at the border in order to alleviate the sufferings of human beings caught up in political turmoil.
Member states should refrain from any further action which leads to vulnerable people ending up in a humanitarian and human rights emergency. I am particularly concerned by the complete closure of border posts by Greece, which is being followed by other member states. I am also concerned about Turkey’s actions in the last days that have encouraged people to move to the border and have left them in this situation.
Regarding the situation in the Aegean Sea, I am alarmed by reports that some people in distress have not been rescued, while others have been pushed back or endangered. I recall that the protection of the lives of those in distress at sea is one of the most basic duties which must be upheld, and that collective expulsions constitute serious human rights violations.
I am also gravely concerned by reports of vigilantism on the Greek islands. The authorities have a clear duty to prevent violence and intimidation against refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. They also have the duty to ensure that NGOs and individuals are not prevented from providing assistance.
Member states must also ensure that journalists can cover the situation freely and safely.
Beyond the immediate measures that need to be taken as a matter of urgency, more structural action is necessary. Increasing border control cannot be the only response. Solidarity between member states is now more crucial than ever. This should focus on building further capacity to deal, in a fair and prompt manner, with asylum requests, but also with sharing responsibility for the reception of those in need of protection.
This should, firstly, extend to Turkey. Turkey is currently the country hosting the largest number of refugees worldwide and has been so for many years. Efforts to share responsibility with Turkey, especially in terms of ensuring that those who cannot be adequately protected there can be resettled, have been grossly inadequate. With up to a million more Syrians in a desperate humanitarian situation at Turkey’s border, a much more robust response is necessary.
Secondly, solidarity must be extended to Greece in order to decongest the Aegean islands, and to alleviate the pressure on the mainland where reception capacities are also limited. There is no more time for political wrangling over the relocation of a few dozen asylum seekers here and there. Talks need to be about very substantial numbers if the notions of solidarity and responsibility sharing are to have any meaning.
Over the years, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants have been used as pawns to achieve the domestic or geopolitical goals of all the states involved. This is antithetical to the idea of human rights and to the values that unite us. The response I see today threatens to upend the entire system of protection that Europe has painstakingly built up over many decades. It is not yet too late to reverse the current course of action and preserve dignity and humanity.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is appealing for calm and an easing of tensions on Turkey’s borders with the European Union in light of the present increased movements of people there – including refugees and asylum-seekers.
UNHCR is monitoring developments in Turkey and in Greece and is offering its support. As in all such situations it is important that the authorities refrain from any measures that might increase the suffering of vulnerable people.
All States have a right to control their borders and manage irregular movements, but at the same time should refrain from the use of excessive or disproportionate force and maintain systems for handling asylum requests in an orderly manner.
Neither the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees nor EU refugee law provides any legal basis for the suspension of the reception of asylum applications. Article 78(3) of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) has been evoked by the Greek Government in this regard, however this provision allows for provisional measures to be adopted by the Council, on a proposal from the Commission and in consultation with the European Parliament, in the event that one or more Member States are confronted by an emergency situation characterised by a sudden inflow of third country nationals while it cannot suspend the internationally recognized right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement that are also emphasized in EU law. Persons entering irregularly on the territory of a State should also not be punished if they present themselves without delay to the authorities to seek asylum.
On the borders between Turkey and the EU, UNHCR is working with national partners, Turkish Red Crescent, IOM and Unicef, assessing the situation and providing humanitarian assistance where needed. Groups there have included Syrians, Afghans, Iranians, Sudanese and other nationalities – including women, children and families, arriving in precarious conditions.
In Greece, UNHCR teams reported the arrival of some 1,200 people on 1 March and 2 March morning on the East Aegean islands (Lesvos, Chios, Samos) – higher than the recent daily rate. UNHCR has replenished stocks of dry food and blankets to support new arrivals and has confirmed that other actors have additional items in stock.
Greece, and other States on the EU external border, should not be left alone. Continued European resources, capacity and solidarity are needed to boost Greece’s response.
At the same time, international support to Turkey, which already hosts millions of refugees, as well as other countries neighbouring Syria, must be sustained and stepped up.
While the situation on the Turkey’s western borders and Greece and movement of several thousand people is of concern, the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the northwest Syria and massive humanitarian needs in Idlib for some 950,000 of internally displaced people continues to require urgent action.
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