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Cynicism Masquerading as Realism: A Response to Gerald Knaus

The ‘Rome plan’ to fast-track returns to West Africa will perpetuate restrictive refugee policies, argue Doctors Without Borders’ Louise Roland-Gosselin and Apostolis Fotiadis, a journalist contributing to Refugee Support in the Aegean.

Written by Apostolis Fotiadis, Louise Roland-Gosselin Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A view of the Moria migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos in March 2017. AFP/LOUISA GOULIAMAKI

By selectively ignoring inconvenient facts, policy expert Gerald Knaus put forward the 2016 E.U. deal with Turkey as a model for migration policy and the only way to both save the U.N. Refugee Convention and contain populist forces in Europe.

Knaus, the founding director of the European Stability Initiative, recently offered this so-called realist model as a solution to the high numbers of asylum seekers and migrants arriving in Italy.

Avoiding mention of Libya, he proposes forging many E.U.-Turkey deal-like arrangements with African countries of origin. He also recommended the adoption of the Dutch-style fast-track asylum processing method and that a sophisticated expulsion mechanism be applied in Italy. This policy would be implemented in “respect for existing refugee law” and would “treat asylum seekers respectfully,” he wrote in Refugees Deeply.

Yet organizations providing legal and medical services to asylum seekers and migrants in Greece have witnessed and documented the violence, violations and dehumanization caused by such policies every day.

The “realist” deals proposed by Gerald Knaus are not only misguided but also violate basic human rights principles and put the health, well-being and sometimes the lives of asylum seekers and migrants in Greece at risk.

A Breakdown in E.U. and Refugee Law

The E.U.-Turkey statement of March 2016 essentially seeks to put an end to asylum seekers and migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece by setting up a mechanism to return the majority to Turkey.

It is based on the premise that Turkey is a safe country for asylum seekers and that there is no need for them to travel onward to Greece and the rest of Europe. Nine months later, the deal was reinforced with a joint action plan, a two-page document setting out further restrictive action to be taken.

Over the last 16 months, even if they recognized some limitations in its implementation, Knaus and E.U. leaders have strenuously defended the E.U.-Turkey statement, refusing to address the dire consequences it has inflicted on people’s lives and on the rule of law. They have consistently ignored the toxicity the statement has unleashed and have instead focused their narrative on how it has saved lives by reducing sea crossings between Turkey and Greece.

Yet the little implementation there has been of the E.U.-Turkey statement has come as a result of strong political pressure from the E.U. and an erosion of fundamental legal protections.

In Greece, the government has adopted one legal amendment after another and continuously changed policies in an effort to limit the rights of asylum seekers and enable their return to Turkey. For example, when Greek second instance asylum committees challenged Turkey’s status as a safe third country and found that asylum seekers should not be returned there, the government changed the composition of the committees in June 2016 which then declared Turkey to be safe.

The European Court of Justice ruled that it had no jurisdiction over the E.U.-Turkey statement since it was a political agreement between Turkey and E.U. member states, rather than a legally binding agreement. The deal therefore evades the scrutiny of existing E.U. conventions and bodies aimed at protecting people’s basic rights.

This ruling was made despite the fact that the European Commission’s Asylum Support Office has in effect partly taken over asylum policymaking on the islands since implementation of the deal, pushing a conservative and restrictive agenda over asylum proceedings there.

Dramatic Impact on People’s Health and Lives

Since 2015, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) medical teams on Lesbos and Samos have witnessed first-hand the dramatic impact of the E.U.-Turkey statement on the health and lives of asylum seekers on the Greek islands, as it keeps people on the islands in unacceptable conditions for months on end.

The organization’s medical data unequivocally show the extremely deep vulnerability and suffering of that population – many of whom are victims of sexual violence or torture or have severe mental health trauma. It also highlights how so many vulnerable people do not get the protection and care they so desperately need. Many MSF patients who are victims of torture or have a severe medical condition remain stuck on Lesbos, some for more than a year.

The lack of appropriate essential services for the thousands of men, women and children stuck on the islands, the dreadful living conditions and the breakdown of the vulnerability screening process have led to a dangerous and explosive situation. Last winter, five asylum seekers lost their lives desperately trying to heat themselves in flimsy tents in Lesbos.

An assessment by Refugee Support Aegean found that the poor investigation of the deaths by Greek authorities and the E.U.’s lack of responsibility for the refugees in the hotspots perpetuated the hazardous conditions and impunity for administrative failures, turning hotspots on the Greek islands into institutional gray zones.

Over the last year, demonstrations and riots have become a near daily occurrence in the islands’ hotspots. Last week, riots in Moria camp on Lesbos led to the evacuation of the camp, with women and children running away from tear gas, and many reports of violence.

No matter how good the spin, the E.U.-Turkey statement and other such deals are no solution to the so-called migration crisis.

Knaus’ restrictive “realist” agenda is not only fundamentally flawed in its conception, it also worryingly evades legal scrutiny. But abandoning basic principles of the Refugee Convention will not save refugee law. Letting people die in inhumane conditions is no way to combat populist xenophobia. On the contrary, it will vindicate the very xenophobic backlash it claims to struggle against.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of MSF and RSA or the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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