Seven years after the EU-Turkey Statement, published on March 18th, 2016, the European Union is still failing to find sustainable solutions for migration management that effectively prevent the loss of lives at sea, protect the right to seek asylum, and promote safe and legal routes. This report shows how the failure of the EU-Turkey Statement, still proclaimed to be the model for future migration deals, should convince EU states to not put their hopes in similar externalisation agreements.
At the heart of the EU-Turkey Deal is a mechanism to return asylum seekers arriving irregularly in Greece to Türkiye. In order for EU member states to send them to Türkiye without violating the non-refoulement principle, the state has to be considered a “Safe Third Country”, both in law and practice. However there is ample evidence that Türkiye, like other states that the EU wants to collaborate with, cannot be considered safe.
According to UNHCR, a state can only be deemed safe if it grants the person access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure, and if it treats the person in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention. In its 2022 report on Türkiye, the European Commission itself casts serious doubt on whether the country can be considered safe. Türkiye also does not consider itself fully bound by the 1951 Refugee Convention, as it still upholds territorial limitations. Moreover, Türkiye has not ratified different core human rights treaties; on the contrary, it recently even pulled back from the Istanbul Protocol. Finally, the country has been widely criticised for a growing disregard of human rights standards in the wake of the 2016 attempted coup, one that also affects migrant communities.
Today, Greece and other member states still consider Türkiye a safe third country. The information in this report can only lead to the conclusion that they are mistaken. This seems to be the case for most asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection, who risk being subjected to severe mistreatment, violence, and prolonged detention when returned; but for those fleeing Syria and Afghanistan, there seem to be particular risks involved. Different reports by human rights observers have shown that these groups are especially vulnerable, considering the trend of forced deportation (including of children) by the Turkish authorities. Last year, Türkiye was condemned by the ECtHR for such forcible returns.
Crucially, UNHCR also requires that a state effectively readmits persons, before it can be deemed a safe third country. In the case of Türkiye, readmissions have been suspended for three years, which means that no asylum seekers have been returned through legitimate channels. Those who have been returned, were returned through illegal pushbacks. This is key information to show that Türkiye cannot be considered a safe third country, but also that the EU’s externalisation strategy is fundamentally flawed, as it puts too much power with unreliable third countries.
The effects of this malfunctioning are nevertheless devastating. Because Greece still - mistakenly - considers Türkiye a safe third country, its asylum authorities only examine asylum applications based on their admissibility. The claims by applicants from five countries (including Afghanistan and Syria) will be considered inadmissible, unless they can show that they would be endangered upon return to Türkiye. As a consequence, these asylum claims are not considered on their merits - despite clear indications that many asylum seekers are entitled to international protection. Again, the latter seems to be particularly the case for asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Syria, who have disproportionately high recognition rates in those cases where they are assessed on the merits. In most cases, the consequence is that asylum seekers end up in a legal limbo. Although it is obvious that Türkiye will not admit them in the near future, their applications are considered inadmissible. This leaves them stuck in detention-like camps or in a homeless situation, without any prospects and often devoid of access to services.
In a moment where the EU seems to double down on its strategy to externalise migration management to third countries, it is paramount to draw lessons from the EU-Turkey Statement. The EU simply cannot count on third country governments, not only because their human rights records are deplorable, but also because they are unwilling to prioritise the interests of asylum seekers, nor those of the EU. The complete malfunctioning of the EU-Turkey Statement, with no formal returns to Türkiye in the last three years, shows that other strategies need to be explored. Such strategies should include safe passage, and investment in foreign development rather than in foreign border guards.