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EU: European Commission letter to Greek asylum authorities: all is well in Turkey
16 May 2016
A letter from the European Commission to the Greek authorities setting out why Turkey should be considered a safe third country has been condemned by a Greek human rights group as an attempt "to establish standardized reasoning for systematically denying the asylum claims of Syrian and non-Syrian nationals as inadmissible in Greece."
The letter: Letter from Mathias Ruete, Director-General of European Commission Directorate-General Migration and Home Affairs, to Vasileios Papadopoulos, Secretary-General, General Secretariat for Population and Social Cohesion, 5 May 2016
The letter was sent to the Secretary-General of the Greek migration authority by Mathias Ruete, Director-General of the European Commission's Migration and Home Affairs department, on 5 May 2016, "with a view to facilitating the implementation by the Greek authorities of the EU-Turkey statment of 18 March 2016."
Ruete sets out arguments as to why the Greek authorities should consider Turkey a safe third country to which to return migrants and asylum-seekers "based on the information which is at the disposal of the Commission concerning the relevant legal framework applicable in Turkey and its application, including information obtained in the ongoing visa liberalisation dialogue between the European Commission and the Turkish authorities."
The Commission keenly highlights recent legal amendments made by Turkey as well as "assurances" provided in letters from the Turkish government. Neither of these letters - one sent on 12 April and one on 24 April - has been made public and their specific contents remain unknown. It is thus unclear to what exactly the Turkish authorities have committed themselves.
As Statewatch's director, Tony Bunyan, has previously commented: "If this "letter" addresses legal concerns about the EU-Turkey "dodgy deal" why has it not been published?"
Pleiades, a Greek human organisation, argues that:
"[T]he Commission’s letter reads as a guide for Greek authorities and their EASO counterparts to systematically deny all applications as inadmissible by finding Turkey a safe third country, without mentioning any of the country conditions information which describes the ineffectiveness and inaccessibility of protection mechanisms in Turkey and without even suggesting some of the possible profiles (based on ethnicity, political opinion, etc) that could produce different outcomes.
Nowhere does the Commission’s letter provide guidance (or caution) on analyzing the risk of persecution or other serious harm in Turkey, nor does it actually engage with the credible reports of refoulement from Turkey.
The European Commission’s position on the application of the safe third country principle to Syrian and non-Syrian nationals, as presented in the letter of 5 May 2016, is an affront to the dignity of the affected persons and to the integrity of the Greek asylum system. Greece’s aim should not be, as the Commission’s letter implies, to simply avoid legal responsibility for its actions, particularly in the European Court of Human Rights. Rather Greece, with the support of European institutions, should strive to take actions that completely abstain from actions that threaten the fundamental human rights of vulnerable and traumatized persons by instead guaranteeing them the procedural and other basic rights to which they are entitled. Empty assurances, such as those being offered by Turkey, do not change the fact that human rights violations and liability can follow from the real conditions to which returned individuals will be exposed, including the practical deficiencies in an asylum procedure and degrading detention and living conditions."
See: Pleiades Rejects European Commission Letter Regarding the Application of the Safe Third Country Concept to Turkey
Ruete's letter acknowledges that the Greek authorities are "required in each case, before making any such inadmissibility decision, to be satisfied that Turkey constitutes a safe country for the individual concerned in the light of the asylum applicant's particular circumstances," and that he hopes the letter will be "useful for the carrying out of the individual assessments of whether to consider Turkey as a first country of asylum or as a safe third country."
However, the letter contains no acknowledgement that there exist in Turkey conditions which would cast doubt on its position as a supposedly "safe third country". The Commission also presumably believes that the Turkish authorities are able to implement new legislation at lightning pace: many of the legal provisions to which the letter refers are just a few months old.
The EU-Turkey deal has been roundly condemned by human rights organisations, parliamentarians, NGOs, lawyers and many others: it is a "disgrace" (Norweigan Refugee Council
, link) and a "moral disaster" (Bridget Anderson
, link) that "may be contrary to European Union and/or international law" (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
, pdf). In the words of Italian lawyers' group ASGI
(pdf), it "seriously violates European law and radically betray's the EU's and Italy's judicial culture."
EU institutions and Member States, meanwhile, are firmly behind the deal and thus need to make their case that - at least on paper - Turkey is a safe third country.
As Pleiades note in their rebuttal of the Commission's letter:
"By limiting its analysis to the legal framework in place in Turkey, the Commission obfuscates the need for a careful consideration of the factual reality and the adequacy of protection available in Turkey."
"Although the letter references a “commitment” by the Turkish authorities to allow the EU to monitor the camps and centres, the Commission did not find it necessary to wait until the conclusion of the first such monitoring visit, scheduled for early May 2016, in order to incorporate any formal findings into its letter."
A recent report by on the situation for asylum-seekers and migrants in Turkey suggests it is far from being the "safe third country" that the Commission has conjured up from the paper trail offered to it by the Turkish authorities.
The report, drafted by three parliamentarians from the GUE/NGL group of leftist MEPs, led German MEP Cornelia Ernst to conclude:
"Contrary to the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights, which Turkey has ratified, and contrary to Turkish law, the detainees in the centres we visited had not received information as to the purpose and length of their detention, their right to apply for international protection or their right to challenge their detention before a court. In fact, the detainees did not even know how to contact a lawyer."
See: GUE/NGL delegation to Turkey, What Merkel, Tusk and Timmermans should have seen during their visit to Turkey
It remains to be seen what conclusions are reached by the first EU monitoring visit to Turkey. If it transpires that conditions in Turkey are not as they have been presented by the authorities, will the Commission pay any attention?