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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Turkey, Afghanistan and How Greece is Breaking International Law

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.

Koraki, 7 June 2021

The Greek government rejected the asylum applications of 19 Afghan men, women and children less than three working days after they arrived on Lesvos, in the first illegal use of its arbitrary, legally unjustified and unjustifiable declaration that it considers Turkey a ‘safe state’ for Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani, Somalian, and Bangladeshi people.

This decision must not be allowed to stand – nor must any similar decisions be allowed to be made with such flagrant disregard for international law.

We call upon the international community, including the United Nations, European Union and individual nation states to stand against this shocking and reckless act, and finally call the current Greek government to account for its disgraceful and illegal behaviour towards innocent men, women and children seeking safety from war, chaos and terror.

On 7 June 2021, the Greek government – the political party Nea Dimokratia, announced that its Ministries of Migration and Foreign affairs had taken a ‘Joint Ministerial Decision’ declaring Turkey a ‘safe third state’ for men, women and children from any of Syria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia: effectively that those people could ‘legally’ be forced out of Greece and into Turkey.

While making the declaration, the party’s Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis incorrectly claimed that: ‘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…

We posted in detail on the same day about why this statement was incorrect – including that the concept of a ‘safe third state’ does not in fact exist in international (or indeed European[1]) law and that even were one to judge Turkey by the criteria its own law sets for it to declare another state ‘safe’, Turkey could not possibly be declared safe.

We noted that Turkey in fact refuses to grant asylum even to Syrian men, women and children, and refuses even ‘temporary protected status’ to Bangladeshis, Afghans, Somalians, Pakistanis and Iraqis, and that Turkey regularly forces Syrians back to Syria, and as standard policy pushes people from the other four states back to their countries of origin.

Crucially, we noted that in any case, it is absolutely illegal to judge an application asylum on the basis of a country through which one has travelled to reach a place where they apply for asylum, and added that:

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.

Just 15 days later – entirely predictably, despite its absolute illegality – this is exactly what the Greek government has done.

On Wednesday 16 June at 8pm, a boat carrying 24 men, women and children landed south of Palios, in the north east of Lesvos.

Its passengers fled into woods, fearing that should they be found – especially at night – they would be illegally forced out of Greece by the Greek police and/or coastguard.

The following morning 21 of them were found. Of those, 19 – 15 adults and four children – were taken to the Megala Therma quarantine camp, and two elderly people were taken to hospital for medical examination and evaluation.

Three children, aged 12, 13 and 15, had fled the group, having already been chased once by Greek police and not trusting them to treat them within the bounds of Greek national law. They were found at 3.20pm, and moved to Megala Therma. The two elderly people were also moved to the quarantine camp later that evening.

On 17 June, the 24 men, women and children stated – as is their legal right – that they wished to apply for asylum in Greece and/or the wider European Union.

They were interviewed the same day.

The following day was a Friday. The Greek immigration services, including EASO, do not work on application processing on Saturdays or Sundays. Monday 21 June was a national holiday in Greece.

Despite this, and despite the fact that the ‘average waiting period’ for an asylum application to be processed once a person has arrived in Greece and announced their intention to apply is five years, on the morning of 22 June, nine of the adults, and ten of the children who had applied on 17 June received letters rejecting their application.

Of the 19 people rejected, five are women, four are men, one is a baby, three are children aged six or younger, and five boys aged 12-16. One of the women has suffered mental and physical disability following a Taliban attack in Afghanistan, and the oldest man – her husband – is 85 years old.

Their son, who travelled with them, explained: ‘My mother is 65 years old. She suffered a severe head injury from the Taliban approximately 10 years ago, since which she has had several strokes. The right side of her body is paralysed and her left leg doesn’t work. She can't speak, she has diabetes, she has lost her mental and self- awareness, and her hand and back are broken and injured. My father is approximately 85 years old He lost his own mental awareness, has suffered a heart attack and his right hand and leg do not work.’

Despite this, and of course the fact that there is absolutely no chance the Greek asylum service even had time to consider each individual’s application on its own merits – it is absolutely illegal to deny an asylum application solely on a person’s point of origin, let alone on a country they travelled through to reach the place at which they applied for asylum – the applications were rejected.

And the reasons given for the refusal are primarily the exact illegal reason we predicted when the declaration of Turkey as a safe state was made, and secondarily a set of claims as astonishing as they are easy to disprove.

First of all, the ‘claims’.

The letter addresses the applicants’ statement that they felt ‘isolated’ in Turkey, and could not go outside because they felt scared that they would face police and public violence and that they would be deported.

It argues that ‘there is a large Afghan community in Turkey’ and remarkably adds ‘the Afghan community will provide the applicants with everything, including Afghan ice-cream.’

This is not a dream. It cites the availability of Afghan ice-cream in Turkey as a reason to deny Afghan people asylum in Greece.

It adds that ‘many Afghans work in Turkey, so it will not be difficult for the applicants to find work there.’

We will revisit the issue of deportations in a moment.

But fears over violence from the Turkish public and police are indeed well-founded – attacks on Afghan people in Turkey have increased since 2017, in part due to the Turkish economic crash the following year and the connected downturn in support for the country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

At present, both Erdogan’s AKP, and the main opposition party CHP (characterised by many Western observers as ‘liberal’) publicly campaign and promise to ‘send migrants home’ and when CHP won the Istanbul mayoral election in June 2019 (a factor in Erdogan’s own adoption of anti-migrant campaigning) the phrase ‘send them home’ trended on Twitter across Turkey.

In fact, there is a relatively large Afghan community in Turkey, and it is indeed possible to buy Afghan ice cream in at least the Zeytinburnu area of Istanbul. It is exceptionally difficult, however, to see how either of these things are relevant to the asylum application made by these Afghan people.

First of all, the existence of a community does not mean that the community will, or will be able to, provide food, money or shelter – would the Greek government, for example, expect Greek people in the UK to shoulder the responsibility for feeding, clothing and sheltering Greek people in London?

But secondly, the existence of an Afghan community also does not mean that the situation for Afghan people in Turkey has not changed – and changed for the worse.

In September 2018, UNHCR reported that there were 170,600 Afghan people in Turkey who required asylum. In late 2020, an expert speaking to the Afghanistan Analysis Network (AAN) estimated the figure of undocumented Afghan people in Istanbul alone to be: ‘… at least 200,000.’

Nor are these people welcomed by the Turkish government.

In 2019, Turkey’s Directorate General for Migration Management announced that it had ‘apprehended’ 201,437 Afghan people. In 2020, with numbers of new arrivals far lower because of COVID restrictions, it announced it had ‘captured’ 36,415 Afghan men, women and children. Those people were deported by Turkey.

Undocumented migrants, by the very definition of the term, do not have the documents necessary to enter the system. Not only does this mean they cannot legally work, but also that they may not access healthcare, or send their children to school.

And the Turkish government is not acting quickly to provide papers.

Despite perhaps as many as 370,000 Afghan men, women and children requiring documentation in Turkey, the Turkish government issued just 823 work permits in 2018. The sole alternative is to work illegally, which in the best of times means no job security and shockingly low wages, but during the COVID pandemic, in which many businesses which had previously taken on ‘black market’ workers closed down, it often means work is impossible to find: without it, and with no access to any form of social security, there is a genuine risk of starvation.

Nor are the numbers of Afghan people arriving into Turkey significantly falling. The impact of COVID on communities across the country, along with continued Taliban violence – and the likelihood that the group’s territorial control is likely to increase rather than decrease with the US’ full withdrawal scheduled for 11 September (the Taliban seized 40 Afghan districts in the nine weeks to 21 June 2021, controls more than 120 and are engaged in battles to take 180 more) – we should expect more Afghan people to reach Turkey.

One expert told the AAN: ‘Between 450,000 and 750,000 Afghans are moving westward every year. We don’t expect this to decrease.’

The major concern cited by Afghans in Turkey is the fear that they will be deported by the state – generally back to Afghanistan itself, but in some cases to Pakistan or Iran.

This concern is dismissed in the refusal of their asylum application by the Greek and EU Asylum Service, which states: ‘If this applicant must be protected according to the Geneva convention, they will be protected in Turkey and they will be given asylum there.’

The problem with this dismissal is that it is absolutely and demonstrably false.

Not only that, while it is just about believable that Notis Mitarachis, who appears to pay little attention to international law, does not know this, it is absolutely impossible to believe that professional specialists in international asylum law paid by the Greek government and European Union, do not.

Because while Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention (the Geneva convention to which the letter refers), and to the 1967 Refugee Protocol (signed in New York) it specifically refused to accept the Protocol’s widening of the permissible origin point of people seeking asylum beyond the European borders.

That is – as Greek and EU asylum officials must know if they are qualified and capable of doing their jobs – Turkey refuses to accept that people from outside Europe should be granted asylum.

Some men, women and children who are accepted by the Turkish government as needing international protection are granted it, as ‘people under temporary protection’, but in the last five years this has been almost exclusively granted to Syrians – and not even all of them.

For example, in 2019, 35,000 Afghan men, women and children applied for ‘temporary protection’ – the term ‘temporary’ is confirmation that Turkey will ‘protect’ them only until UNHCR finds them another country in which to live – but in its annual report of that year, the Asylum Information Database stated that ‘Afghans applying for protection seemed to be rejected by default. The main public policy seemed to be to leave people unregistered and thus push them to leave Turkey, especially Afghans… Afghans are thus kept as ‘unregistered irregular migrants’ in the migration system.’

We apologise for repeating ourselves here, but if we can find and read this report, it seems impossible to imagine that the Greek Minister for Migration, the Ministry’s employees and the employees of the Greek and European asylum services cannot. If they can, we must ask why they have not: what exactly do they believe their jobs to be?

In November 2019, the Istanbul governor’s office announced that 42,888 ‘illegal’ migrants had been arrested that year and sent to ‘repatriation centres’ from which they would be removed from Turkey. Speaking to AAN, one Afghan man, ‘Habibullah’, working in Istanbul’s Küçüksu area explained that he and other Afghans in Turkey feared the same – being forced back to Afghanistan where their lives are in direct danger from the Taliban – would happen to them.

He said: ‘About seven or eight months ago, it was really bad. Many Afghans were deported, including one of my friends. Corona gave us a break. Currently, we don’t hear of many arrests, but I am still afraid. Me and my friends don’t go out if it is not absolutely necessary. We don’t go to crowded places where the police could show up and ask for papers. We don’t have Turkish friends. We keep to ourselves.’

This is exactly the same fear the Lesvos arrivals of 16 June cited in their asylum applications, fears which were blithely and impossibly-quickly dismissed by the Greek asylum service.

In December 2019, the Turkish state had 28 removal centres, with a combined capacity of 20,000 places. Ali Hekmat, of the Afghan Refugees Solidarity Association, told AAN: ‘Most of these centres are filled with Afghans.’ It is believed, including by the Asylum Information Database, that many more are detained in the basements of police stations and basketball and other sports centres.

It is far from clear exactly how many Afghan men, women and children have been forced out of Turkey by the Turkish government. By air, because the government uses commercial flights (which fact is then relayed to media as one of the ‘costs forced on Turkey’ by Afghan people), it is hard to be certain, but in 2017, a leak from the Turkish government stated that 10,000 Afghans had been forced from Turkey into Afghanistan.

In 2018, a further 33,000 were returned, while in 2019, 40,000 more were forced back by August, according to Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu. In 2020, flights between Turkey and Afghanistan were suspended due to COVID, but in mid-December the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations said that 9,120 people had been returned from Turkey to the war-torn Asian state.

However, it is clear – given the Turkish government’s own reports – that this is far from the total number of Afghan people removed from Turkey in the last four years. The Turkish authorities ‘apprehended’ 237,852 Afghan men, women and children in 2019 and 2020. All of those have been – or are scheduled to be – forced back either to Afghanistan or Iran, which itself ‘repatriated’ more than 307,000 Afghan people in 2020.

The simple fact is that Turkey does not offer asylum to people from outside Europe, and is reported as ‘rejecting by default’ protection applications from Afghan people. In that, it appears, Greece now has an identical foreign policy to its most feared and hated political rival. It is unfortunate, and somewhat hypocritical, that Nea Dimokratia has steered Greece into this astonishing and unacceptable position.

We may go further.

The vast majority of the rejection letter sent to the Afghan applicants claims that because Greece has declared Turkey a ‘safe state’ – a term with no relevance to international refugee and asylum law – they should return there.

This is of course a simple misrepresentation of the truth. International law absolutely does not require people to apply for asylum in, remain in, or return to the first ‘safe’ country they reach: nor does it offer any indication that they ‘should’ do so. Greece – and the wider EU – has absolutely no legal right to force people to Turkey, or to deny any person the right to asylum based on the fact that they have arrived in Greece from Turkey.

Indeed, even if the term ‘safe state’ had any legitimacy in asylum law, Turkey cannot possibly be regarded as a ‘safe state’ for Afghan people who require protection, because despite the mistruth at the heart of those rejection letters, it regularly and systematically forces those people back to a state at war, and of which well over a third is now once more under the control of the Taliban.

On 7 June, we warned that the Greek government was taking an illegal step – claiming to hold Turkey as a safe third state – to enable itself to pretend it was justified in illegally removing men, women and children from the country, denying them their fundamental human rights.

Just two weeks and one day after making the declaration this is exactly what the Greek government has done.

With thanks to Aegean Boat Report for the on-island information.

[1] EU directive 2013/32 is regularly – and incorrectly – cited as a piece of EU ‘law’ relating to ‘safe third states’. It is in fact not law. It is guidance for EU member states if they wish to designate a state as ‘safe’: the EU has no policy on ‘safe third states’, which do not exist in – and are in fact in direct breach of – international law.


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