Ankara will bolster the legal protection it extends to non-Syrian refugees in a concession that paves the way for the EU to fully implement a deal to send back thousands of asylum seekers currently stranded in Greece.
The EU enlisted Turkey’s help with the migrant crisis in March under heavy public pressure to find a solution. The deal calls for the EU to supply aid and other concessions in exchange for Ankara’s efforts to curb illegal smuggling and accept the return of thousands of asylum seekers from Greece.
Since then, migrant flows across the Aegean have fallen by about 80 per cent. But a key element of the pact — sending asylum seekers back to Turkey — has barely been enacted because of legal questions in Europe about the treatment that would be afforded to non-Syrians, in particular.
While Ankara offers a watered-down refugee status for the 2.7m Syrians in Turkey, it does not apply the Geneva convention in full and in practice does not offer a path to international protection for non-Syrians from the Middle East or Asia.
The UN and refugee charities have identified this as one of the biggest failings in what they see as a deeply flawed EU-Turkey deal. Some EU officials say the lack of specific guarantees for non-Syrians leave the pact vulnerable to a court challenge. Campaign groups such as Amnesty International say that refugees in Turkey face a “catalogue of human rights abuses”.
Ankara had resisted pressure from Brussels to make changes to its asylum system. But in a letter to the European Commission on Tuesday, Turkey pledged that returnees will have their asylum applications heard in full and within a reasonable time period, according to officials familiar with the talks. Syrians who enjoyed refugee status before embarking for Greece will also have a way to have that restored.
The promise to give Syrian and non-Syrian returnees similar status provides legal cover for Greece and the EU to send back the thousands of asylum seekers currently on Greek islands, and still waiting for local authorities to hear their claims.
Selim Yenel, Turkey’s ambassador to the EU, said: “We have solved the issue with a letter to the commission. We believe that now there should be no problem on the EU/Greek side to send back everybody. We have helped the EU legally and with their conscience.”
On an official visit to Turkey, Johannes Hahn, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, told the Financial Times that he welcomed the additional assurances and said the deal would “accelerate the procedure” of returning irregular migrants from the Greek islands.
“Today they have agreed to grant the same protection guarantees to non-Syrian refugees as Syrian refugees. This is something that was requested many times by us,” he added.
Turkey only recently introduced limited asylum rights for non-EU migrants, and the new system is overwhelmed by a backlog of some 140,000 applications. Making efforts to clear this system is one of the conditions the EU has set before granting Turkish citizens short term visa rights — one of the biggest prizes for Ankara in the EU-Turkey deal.
Turkey’s co-operation could increase the pressure on the EU to make good on one of the most controversial elements of the migrant pact: a promise to allow visa-free travel within the EU to Turkish citizens.
Although EU leaders signed off on the concession at a summit in March, it remains deeply unpopular in many member states, particularly France. While Turkey has been demanding that the EU fulfil its promise or risk another surge in migrant flows across the Aegean, European diplomats have been exploring possible compromises.
The issue could come to a head next week, when the commission is set to decide whether Ankara has met the criteria it laid out to qualify for the visa waiver.
Additional reporting by Duncan Robinson in Brussels
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