The world owes thanks to Turkey for hosting the world’s largest number of refugees, more than 3.9 million. It may seem counterintuitive to say that EU members shouldn’t consider Turkey a “safe third country” for refugees and asylum seekers, but it isn’t.
Safe third country designations enable countries to summarily reject asylum seekers on their territories on the presumption the country they travelled through, or some other country, can be trusted to examine their refugee claims and protect qualifying refugees from being forced to return to places where their lives would be at risk.
In June 2021, Greece declared Turkey to be a safe third country for asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, and a few other countries.
When a Syrian or Afghan asylum seeker appears to have entered from Turkey, Greece now places that person’s refugee claim in an accelerated procedure without considering the substance of their claim.
There are multiple reasons Turkey cannot be considered a safe third country.
Lack of access to asylum procedures is one. The likelihood of a fair hearing for those who do get access is another. Turkey’s accession to the 1951 Refugee Convention also includes a geographical limitation whereby it only fully recognises as refugees people fleeing persecution in Europe.
But the main reason is that Turkey does not respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits the return of refugees to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.
Greece actually has no legal way of readmitting rejected asylum seekers to Turkey. Although a much-heralded migration deal with Turkey was announced by the European Council in March 2016. Ankara has not been willing to readmit rejected asylum seekers from Greece since at least March 2020, despite 6 billion euros from the EU to seal the deal.
So Greece continues its unlawful practice of pushing asylum seekers and migrants arriving at its borders, back to Turkey.
Victims have told us that this often involves stripping and beating them, then dumping them in the seasonally frigid waters of the Evros River.
Turkey is doing the same thing on its southern and eastern borders.
This year, Turkey’s interior mnistry reported 238,448 “irregular migrants whose entrance to our country has been prevented” as of 20 October.
A 20-year-old medical student from Ghazni, Afghanistan, whom I met in Istanbul, told me about his encounter with Turkish border authorities shortly after he crossed into Turkey from Iran in December 2021.
Turkish border guards started shooting. His group of 150 was corralled: “Two soldiers held down my hands and feet. Then the commander beat me on my knees with a metal stick. He did this to all the single men…then they forced us back across the border to Iran at a time and place where there were no Iranian border guards.”
The safe third country concept is embedded in the EU’s Asylum Procedures Directive. It says another country can only be considered safe if “the possibility exists to request refugee status and, if found to be a refugee, to receive protection in accordance with the Geneva Convention.”
But many Afghans inside Turkey are routinely prevented from accessing any procedure to assess their claims for international protection and many are being deported to Afghanistan with little to no examination of their refugee claims.
This happened to a 16-year-old boy I talked with from Herat, Afghanistan who said his father was killed by the Taliban. “The day before I was deported, a guard at the Edirne Removal Center told me I had to sign a deportation paper. I refused to sign it. He hit me on my arm with a metal police baton.”
The next day, the boy said, another official took his hand and forced his fingerprint on the paper.
“No one ever asked if I was afraid to go back to Afghanistan. On the paper was written that my return was voluntary, but I cried a lot and begged them not to deport me.” He was deported on 17 May.
Turkey deported 44,768 Afghan nationals in the first eight months of 2022, a 150-percent increase from the first eight months of 2021, before the Taliban takeover.
Whether or not formalised readmissions from the EU to Turkey are implemented, asylum seekers who apply for asylum in Greece or other EU countries should not be denied the chance to make refugee claims on the false premise that Turkey will allow them to register, examine their claims, and provide effective protection to those who need it.