EU-Turkey Refugee Deal: Brewing Trouble over International Waters

By Karandeep Singh*  and Aashish Yadav**

The objective of the EU-Turkey refugee deal which came into effect on 20th March 2016 is applicable only to Syrian refugees. Since then, the official asylum channels to Europe for non-Syrians have been entirely cut off. As a result, tensions have been running high in the refugee camps in Greece as migrants are unsure about their future. There have been multiple reports of scuffles breaking out between Syrians and non-Syrians.

336e1d845e6d4f119aeaebbef419918b_18As per the deal, irrespective of nationality or urgency, all the asylum seekers landing on the European shores coming from Turkey are now being sent back to Turkey. The collective deportation of several hundred people every day is being carried out by Frontex, Europe’s border police, with Turkish assistance.

Debt-ridden Greece has been facing the highest influx of refugees trying to enter into Europe through the Aegean Sea route. Despite lacking both money and manpower, the major responsibility of implementing this deal has been thrust upon the Greeks. The most senior Greek asylum official, Maria Stavropoulou, to The Guardian, said that she would need a 20-fold increase in personnel to handle expected claims. The EU had promised to send 2,300 experts to Greece but only about 200 have arrived as of 10th April.

With the shortage of EU officials, the burden of implementing the deal has fallen upon Greek asylum officials who are still unclear about the legal ramifications of their actions. This may be happening deliberately as this would increase the number of refugees returned and offering a futile legal remedy to the ones with rejected asylum claims.

As per the deal, people who will be deported under the deal will be the ones who will not get asylum in Greece. However, human rights watchdogs and independent news sources have reported that everyone is being deported. This includes refugees who have been coming in every day in addition to the refugees who have not yet been granted asylum in Greece. Further, there are reports of deportation of refugees whose appeal hearings are still pending.

In return for this deal, Turkey has been given monetary and political incentives -the EU has promised Turkey an aid package of over €6bn and visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens. To carry out this deal, the EU has come up with the legal fiction of declaring Turkey a “safe third country”. According to news reports, Turkey has been sending refugees back to their home countries, which is in direct contravention of the policy of non-refoulement[1] – a legal principle stating that a refugee cannot be returned back to a place deemed unsafe for that particular refugee.

According to a UNHCR report on 11th April 2016, of the approximate 10 million total refugees stranded in Turkey, 2.7 million are Syrians. Given the Turkish government’s dismal track record regarding human rights, it will have a hard time convincing the sceptics of its sincerity. Even after the EU aid is taken into consideration, which Turkey has termed “insufficient”-the refugee crisis could be an albatross round their necks.

Declaring the EU-Turkey deal illegal, UNHCR, International Rescue Committee and Save the Children, among others have withdrawn their support from the major “detention centres” in Greece from where the refugees are being sent to Turkey. The loss of their support means the loss of legitimacy and resources. They have reasoned that expelling refugees collectively without hearing their individual applications is in direct contravention of established international law (Article 19, Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union)[2]. Further, according to the Geneva Convention[3] of 1951, it is completely illegal for a country to discriminate between refugees on the basis of race, religion or the country of origin. With this deal, the EU is setting up a precedent that human rights commitments and rules can be set aside in the name of expediency.

It will take time for the matter to reach either the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) or the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and for the deal to be found unlawful. Since then, the EU would have satisfied its short-term objective of returning all the asylum seekers coming from Turkey.

turkey refugees IIThe endless waiting line- now rumoured to be 72000 strong, and the unacceptable living conditions of the camps reflects an EU policy that promotes a concern for welfare but is ultimately ineffectual. For many, this deal represents nothing but another form of displacement backed by coercive border control, detention and illegal deportation measures. This denial of justice demonstrates the European Union’s indifferent attitude.

The EU-Turkey deal is a result of a state of panic among policy makers rather than a clear long term thought. The surprising consensus that the 28 EU Heads of State while signing the deal, despite their increasingly divergent interests, is a clear signifier of a feeling of alarm among them. Through the deal, the EU claims to be sending a message to the asylum seekers and the smugglers from bringing them on European land, but this also sends a message to the host countries. The EU message to the leadership of host countries seems to be that in the times you face unpopularity in your country, the obligation to protect should take the backseat. If Turkey also goes the EU way, the refugees will be left with fewer alternatives. Since the time of the start of this crisis, this situation has time and again been pushed around rather than resolved.

(Karandeep *  is currently pursuing B.A. LL.B. (H) from University School of Law and Legal Studies, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University. His interests include international law and constitutional Law. He can be contacted at

 Aashish **  is currently pursuing LL.B. from Campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi. He graduated in English Literature from Hindu College. His areas of interest are human rights law, international law, intellectual property law and criminal law. He can be contacted at



  1. The 1951 Refugee Convention-
  2. Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union-
  3. EU-Turkey statement, 18 March 2016-
  4. Factsheet on the EU-Turkey Agreement (Brussels, 19 March 2016)-
  5. Syria Regional Refugee Response: Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal-
  6. UNHCR redefines role in Greece as EU-Turkey deal comes into effect-
  7. UNHCR on EU-Turkey deal: Asylum safeguards must prevail in implementation-
  8. UNHCR expresses concern over EU-Turkey plan-
  9. EU-Turkey refugee plan could be illegal, says UN official-
[1]Article 33, Geneva Convention ’51Prohibition of expulsion or return (refoulement)
No Contracting State shall expel or return (refouler) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
[2]Article 19, Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union- Protection in the event of removal, expulsion or extradition : Collective expulsions are prohibited.
[3]Article 3, Geneva Convention ’51 – Non-discrimination : The Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.

2 thoughts on “EU-Turkey Refugee Deal: Brewing Trouble over International Waters

  1. “safe third country” concept isn’t only related to deportation- it is also related to other aspects such as physical/ legal security of persons in that country. there is a UNHCR note on safe third country which probably should have found a mention in this piece.

    “Since then, the official asylum channels to Europe for non-Syrians have been entirely cut off.” – this is so not true. The closure of the Greeks and Balkans route is leading refugees/migrants to choose the Mediterranean route to Italy- there has infact been an increase in the last week in the arrivals in Italy- the route is still pretty much open, and just as equally, if not more treacherous.

    “the burden of implementing the deal has fallen upon Greek asylum officials who are still unclear about the legal ramifications of their actions”- i don’t think they are unaware- they just don’t have an option, really.

    Declaring the EU-Turkey deal illegal, UNHCR…among others have withdrawn their support from the major “detention centres” in Greece from where the refugees are being sent to Turkey. – LOL, you are kidding me right? UNHCR hasn’t/ can’t declare the deal “illegal”- pls. look at Art. 2 of the UNHCR Statute 1950 which requires them to be “non-political”- they always use language which says it MAY contravene principles of international law etc. but never say that anything is outright illegal. Also, if you don’t know, UNHCR may not be present at the detention sites but it IS part of the deal’s implementation- by telling refugees/asylum seekers/ migrants why they are being returned etc. For more information, please check Melissa Fleming’s twitter/ facebook feed from last week or so when the first deportations were implemented.

    The EU-Turkey deal is a result of a state of panic among policy makers rather than a clear long term thought- Nope, it is actually very well thought and has been in the making for quite a while now. Europe knows what it is doing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The primary focus of this article is the international law and human rights violations leading from the EU-Turkey refugee deal. The secondary focus is on the Syrian refugees trying to seek asylum in Greece.

      Your active deconstruction of the article has broadened our understanding on the larger issue of the refugee crisis. We wanted to include a lot more in this article (like the UNHCR note on “safe third country”) but we could not do that because of some constraints.

      You have rightly stated that the Greek asylum officials have no other option, but if you read news reports on the implementation of the deal, you will find several Greek asylum officials working on the ground saying on record that they are uncertain about their actions as the orders from their superiors keep changing almost every day.

      When we say that UNHCR has withdrawn support from the “detention centres”, we mean only that and nothing else but that. We are aware that UNHCR still has a presence on the ground and is helping out refugees in other ways.

      The comment on the state of panic among the EU leadership has subjective undertones. We are of the opinion that the EU which used to pride itself on its human rights credentials has yielded to domestic “popular” thought instead of taking active measures to address the larger crisis.


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