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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Greece, and Turkey as a ‘safe state’ – hollow, illegal and dangerous

At 2pm today (7 June 2021), the Greek government announced that its Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Migration had taken a ‘Joint Ministerial Decision’ declaring Turkey a ‘safe third state’ for men, women and children who originated in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Somalia.

This decision is deeply concerning for several reasons, including its lack of basis in international law, some simple facts which undermine any claims that Turkey could be considered a ‘safe state’ for those people, and concerns about exactly what the Greek government will seek to do now it has announced it.

It is, in short, a dangerous and unjustifiable step, which must be immediately rescinded.

The Decision

Making the declaration this afternoon, Greek Minister of Migration, Notis Mitarachis, said:

The designation of Turkey as a safe third country is an important step in tackling illegal migration flows and the criminal activity of smuggling networks.

‘The Joint Ministerial Decision – as a derivative of the cooperation between Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Migration & Asylum – is fully in line with international law and enhances Greece's legal arsenal against requests by citizens from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia, countries that they have no reason whatsoever to consider Turkey a non-safe country.

Above all, it is another step for the full and unwavering implementation of the EU-Turkey Joint Declaration, which obliges the neighbouring country not to allow the operation of smuggling networks and the passage to Greece.

These three paragraphs are remarkable for the fact they manage to make six entirely incorrect claims, and in the third paragraph, one statement which reveals the point to be not to work in keeping with human rights or human safety, but in Mitarachis and his party Nea Dimokratia’s desperate desire to keep people out of Greece at any cost.

We will return to the third paragraph.

But before we do. We write often about international law, and the rights of all men, women and children, including ourselves, and including you and everyone you know and care about, under it.

We are unhappy to be forced once again to address Mitarachis’ use of language in ways that will (perhaps inadvertently) mislead people about international law, and human rights, but we must note – again – that Mitarachis’ use of the term ‘illegal migration flows’ is deeply misleading when applied to the men, women and children reaching Greece in the hopes of finding safe places to live in the EU.

It is – we must state once again – the absolute human right of any man, woman or child to travel anywhere they wish to, with or without paperwork, as long as they declare their intention to apply for asylum as soon as possible after their arrival in whichever they consider to be their destination.

What Mitarachis is talking about here is simply, and absolutely, not ‘illegal migration’: it is people using their right to find safety and shelter in the place of their choice, because they have been denied it in their ‘home’ country.

‘Safe third country’

Mitarachis also claims that the decision is ‘fully in line with’ international law. In fact, it is not.

International law contains no mention whatsoever of ‘safe third countries’. Neither, as yet, does EU law – which in any case must be considered secondary to international law – though EU law may change in the next 6-12 months.

In fact, the concept of a ‘safe third state’ is a piece of national law, and one which directly clashes with, and in most cases certainly breaks international law on refugees and human rights.

As we shall see, the vast majority of EU member states do not have a list of ‘safe third countries’. The Turkish state does list the idea in its own Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP), 2003.

However, even this law states that a ‘safe third country’ must be one in which:

· The lives and freedoms of persons are not in danger on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership to a particular social group or political opinion

· The principle of non-refoulement of persons to countries in which they will be subject to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, is implemented

· The applicant has an opportunity to apply for refugee status in the country, and in case he or she is granted refugee status by the country authorities, he or she has the possibility of obtaining protection in compliance with the 1951 Refugee Convention

Even were we to ignore the fact that large numbers of people listed as ‘Syrian’ by the Greek asylum authorities and EASO are in fact Kurdish, and as such certainly do risk their lives or at the very least their freedoms being removed altogether or significantly reduced by the Turkish government, Turkey simply does not qualify under this definition.

The problems: why the Decision breaks the law, and must be immediately rescinded

1) Turkey signed the 1967 Refugee Protocol only after demanding to retain the geographical designation set in the 1951 Refugee Convention: in simple language this means that the Turkish government refuses to accept that it has a legal obligation to accept as a refugee anyone who did not originate in one of the 47 Council of Europe member states.

2) The Turkish government has, in recent years, given Syrian people 'protected person' status. This is NOT refugee status, but gives limited legal rights to Syrian men, women and children living in Turkey.

3) Despite this, the Turkish government, its military and police, have certainly started to force Syrians back to Syria, even though there is absolutely no definition under which Syria could be considered safe for them. In cases documented by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, most of those forced back have since been jailed and in many cases never heard from again.

4) In fact, it is worse than that: in late 2020, Turkey's Ministry of Migration (the Directorship General of Migration Management, DGMM) set as safe countries to which Syrians could be deported from Turkey Iran, Micronesia, Haiti and Sudan. That is - although it has not yet done so – the Turkish government reserves the right to deport Syrian people to any one of those four countries.

5) For Afghans, Somalians, Bangladeshis and Pakistani people, the situation is even worse.

Not only does the Turkish government not recognise their rights to be refugees, it also refuses to offer them even 'protected person' status.

6) Under its LFIP, the DGMM states that Iran and Pakistan must both be regarded as 'safe' states into which Afghans can be forced, even though it simultaneously states that Morocco should be considered a safe state for Pakistani people. Morocco is also considered a 'safe state' for ALL other people who have entered Turkey. That is, Turkey cannot be considered a safe state for Syrian, Afghan, Bangladeshi, Somalian and Pakistani people because it legislates to remove those people whenever and as quickly as possible.

7) Not only that, in practice the Turkish government cannot force the countries it has designated as ‘safe’ to actually accept the people it wants to remove. This means many of those people are held for months - in some cases years - in detention instead.

8) Mitarachis and Nea Dimokratia know this. They know, therefore that if they force people back to Turkey they may be sent back to the country they have fled (as in point one), or to other countries in which they have no desire to live, which is specifically against their human rights under international law, or (often and) they will be held, having committed no crime, in detention centres.

There is no reality in which this could possibly be defined as a 'safe state'.

9) Nor could there possibly be any way in which anyone could pretend that Turkey has become in some way ‘more’ safe for people from these five countries in the last decade, the period since Nea Dimokratia took power in July 2019, or in the last few months. The Greek government also knows this.

Indeed, its sole reason for making this astonishing and fundamentally awful decision is summed up in the last paragraph of Mitarachis’ three paragraph statement, the final paragraph of which we shall revisit:

Above all, it is another step for the full and unwavering implementation of the EU-Turkey Joint Declaration, which obliges the neighbouring country not to allow the operation of smuggling networks and the passage to Greece.

‘Above all.’

By its own description of its own decision, the Greek government holds ‘above all’ not the safety or welfare of men, women and children, nor the fundamental right of those people – of all people, everywhere – to find safety and shelter from war, chaos, terror and death, but to force the Turkish government, military, police and coastguards to prevent those people reaching Greece.

10) It's not only the Greek government that knows this. This is why Greece has just become only the fifth of 28 EU member or recent member states to have taken this step.

The others are Bulgaria, Croatia, the notoriously anti-refugee Slovakia and the famously and unarguably far-Right and ultra-nationalist Hungary of Victor Orban, which is currently awaiting EU punishment for refusing to abide by EU law on refugees and other travelling people.

What does the Greek government want to do?

And this is an important final consideration. Why would the Greek government – in spite of all the evidence that Turkey is not safe for the people Mitarachis lists,, and despite the fact that this is so clearly a step which is direct opposition to international laws on human rights, and on refugees – make this Decision?

Mitarachis claims it is an ‘important step in tackling illegal migration flows and the criminal activity of smuggling networks’.

But we already know that ‘illegal migration’ is not what is at issue here, and neither could the designation of Turkey as a safe third state do anything to reduce either illegal migration or the activities of smugglers.

To do that, all the Greek government and the EU actually need to do is open safe routes for men, women and children to reach Greece and the rest of Europe, and ensure it runs the transportation on those routes.

Failing that, they could at least attempt to target people smugglers, on order to prevent them from operating.

Greece and the EU have so far chosen to do neither of these things. Instead, they have decided to target, to punish and to illegally push back the people whose right it is to travel to find safe places to live, learn and work.

And that is another reason why this Decision is so concerning. It is meaningless under international law, it has been proven not even to live up to the standards set under similar laws elsewhere, but equally importantly it cannot and will not fulfil any of the aims Mitarachis claims it sets out to achieve.

Given all of these things, we must conclude that the Greek government’s sole aim here is to use this Decision – despite its illegality and the fact that it will strip men, women and children of their rights and in most cases force them into peril and/or incarceration – to illegally prevent people from travelling, or to illegally refuse to give full and proper consideration of asylum applications it receives.

For all of these reasons, we must demand that the Greek government rescinds this hollow, illegal, and dangerous Decision, immediately.


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