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NATO Standing Maritime Group - Schwarzes Meer
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Mihailescu

EU is desperate for solution to migrant crisis

Bruce I. Konviser
March 12, 2016

Rights activists and legal experts fear the EU is losing its moral compass as it searches for a solution to the refugee crisis. Both EU and international law prohibit locking out or expelling would-be asylum seakers.


The European Union's ongoing struggle to somehow contain, or reverse, the massive flow of refugees fleeing war-torn Middle-Eastern countries is heightening concerns about the bloc's commitment to both EU and international law.

In the last week or so agreements to deploy NATO warships to the Aegean Sea and a tentative deal with Turkey to send back would-be refugees en masse are raising concerns among rights activists and legal experts.

"At a minimum, the EU is looking the other way," Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch in Washington told DW.

More than 1 million migrants landed on European shores last year - the vast majority originally coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan - three countries plagued by civil unrest, or outright civil war in the case of Syria.

The Q&A on refugee summit

The flow has only accelerated in the opening months of 2016. The preferred route has been to cross Turkey, then make the short but perilous sea journey to one of a trio of Greek islands.

It's no more than six miles (10 km) but most of the 400 migrants who have perished this year trying to reach Europe have drowned in this narrow band of water.

NATO in the Aegean

Both the EU and NATO insist they only want to protect the lives of the migrants and (somehow) clamp down on the smugglers behind the exodus.

"The decision of NATO to assist in the conduct of reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of illegal crossings in the Aegean Sea is an important contribution to international efforts to tackle smuggling and irregular migration in the Aegean Sea in the context of the refugee crisis," the European Commission said in a statement formalizing the agreement last Sunday.

But that explanation rings hollow for human rights activists.

Some have recently argued that if the EU really wants to ensure the safe passage of migrants it should do exactly the opposite of what it is doing. That is, rather than closing borders, it should be opening them, including the Greek-Turkish land crossing.

Prior to the recent NATO deployment, the territorial waters between Greece and Turkey were being patrolled by the countries' respective coast guards and Frontex, a pan-European border agency. But because of long-standing tensions between Greece and Turkey, Frontex ships are confined to Greek territorial waters.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the European Commission on Thursday, "We have started to focus on the area around the Greek island of Lesbos, and we are planning to move further south in the coming days and weeks."

Since both countries are NATO members, alliance warships are free to ply the disputed waters, and that, says Frelick, is the key.

"The reason to engage NATO is to put assets in Turkish territorial waters," he said, explaining that once migrant boats reach Greek waters, the only thing Frontex and the Greek coast guard can do is help usher the boats ashore, onto a Greek island.

NATO spokesman Dylan White rejected the claim that NATO warships would effectively block migrant boats from reaching Greek waters

"We're not creating a maritime wall," he said.

But that is exactly what rights activists fear.

"It's a maritime Berlin Wall. And walls, as we have seen, are indiscriminate," Frelick said.

"NATO is more likely to be blocking people in a presumption that these people don't need international protection," he continued. "It's disingenuous; the real aim here is to stop the flow of migrants."

The EU -Turkey deal

While questions swirl around NATO's naval deployment, EU and Turkish officials came to a startling, albeit tentative, agreement this past week. Turkey proposed to take back all Syrian migrants that land in Greece on the condition that for every one taken back, one will be given asylum in the EU.

There are other conditions, too, of course, most notably money – lots of it.

Turkey is asking for around 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) to house and feed the new migrants, as well as the 2.5 million refugees already in Turkish camps. It has also called on the EU to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens throughout the bloc - a perk Turks have long craved.

And it is also calling for an acceleration of EU accession talks, which have been languishing for nearly 30 years.

The deal, which the EU will consider ratifying on Thursday, immediately raised eyebrows or even generated outright shock in some quarters.

Implementing such a proposal would be illegal because EU and international law prohibit the expulsion of would-be refugees until their asylum claims can be adequately assessed by the host country.

"Fast-track returns and large-scale returns essentially means a collective expulsion, which is barred by EU law," Frelick said, adding that Turkey cannot be considered a 'safe country.'

Trapped in a war zone

He said it was appalling, and illegal, for Turkey to close its border with Syria, effectively trapping tens of thousands of people inside a war zone.

"We're seeing already 50,000 to 70,000 Syrians are on the Syrian side of the border, a violation of international law," he said.

UN officials, including Filippo Grandi, the High Commissioner for Refugees, are also alarmed by the plan.

"I am deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve a blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law," Grandi told the EU parliament this week.

Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR's coordinator in Europe, told journalists in Geneva that the plan was illegal.

"The collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under the European Convention of Human Rights," he said. "An agreement that would be tantamount to a blanket return to a third country is not consistent with European law, not consistent with international law."

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