Europe can no longer pretend to respect human rights
December 8, 2016 — Comment
Written by Frances Webber
Anger is building at the return of refugees from Europe to war zones and the EU’s deals with dictators and torturers to prevent refugees from leaving their own countries. In the first of two articles, Frances Webber looks at the EU’s deals with Afghanistan and Turkey. The second article will examine the deals with African states.
Every good liberal abhors Trump, whose pre-election pledge to build a wall along the US-Mexico border was greeted with displays of self-righteous outrage in Europe. But the EU’s response to the refugee crisis has gone further: not merely allowing the construction of walls and fences, and equipping military patrols to keep the refugees from its borders, but also embracing dictators and war criminals, returning refugees to war zones, and ditching human rights clauses in trade and aid agreements in favour of demands for help in stopping the refugees from leaving repression and torture. And the UK is an enthusiastic partner in this project.
Returns to Afghanistan
It took a petition signed by 13,000 people to persuade the Home Office to review the case of 19-year-old Bashir Naderi, whose mother sent him to the UK from Afghanistan as a 10-year-old after his father was shot dead by the Taliban. Bashir lost contact with his mother during his year-long journey to the UK, knows no one in Afghanistan and speaks none of its languages. A student in Cardiff, where his foster-mother Dawn Jackson lives, he was detained for deportation in October 2016 when he went for routine reporting, and he fears that he will not survive if he is sent back.
He is right to be afraid. A March 2016 document co-authored by the European Commission described the record levels of civilian casualties and terrorist attacks in the country, with over 11,000 casualties in 2015 and the situation likely to get worse. In September, the UN called for aid to the million internally displaced people in Afghanistan, as the conflict with the Taliban intensified, and malnutrition was affecting nearly three million people, including a million children. In October, the BBC described the situation facing returning Afghan refugees as ‘an unprecedented humanitarian crisis’, with the Taliban attacking half the country’s provinces, food supplies running low and winter approaching.
The country’s slide into war prompted the Court of Appeal to impose a blanket ban on charter-flight deportations to Afghanistan in August 2015. But it lifted the ban in March 2016 – the same month as the EC report describing the worsening security situation, accepting that the Home Office was entitled to its view that although the provinces were not safe, the capital, where returnees would be sent, was (although the court accepted it was grossly overcrowded, having grown tenfold in a decade, and lacked basic infrastructure, jobs, housing and medical provision). The Home Office announced it would resume charter flight deportations to Kabul, despite objections from Afghanistan’s minister for refugees and repatriation. Weeks before the judgment, the Home Office had admitted that since 2007 over 3,000 child refugees had been forcibly returned to countries at war once they turned 18 – including 657 to Iraq and over 2000 to Afghanistan.
The EU-Afghanistan agreement
When the Court of Appeal deemed Kabul safe in March, the capital had already been shaken by half a dozen suicide bombs in 2016. Since then, the Taliban have escalated their attacks in Kabul, with targets including vehicles, restaurants and mosques. But the escalation of the conflict did not prevent the EU signing an agreement in October for the return of at least 200,000 Afghans from EU member states. The deal gives the Afghan government some £12 billion in aid, with a further £5 billion to follow in military aid, and envisages the construction of a new terminal at Kabul’s airport, specifically designed for migrants rejected by EU member states. The EU will also cover return travel costs and help finance an Afghan-led campaign to tell people not to seek protection in the EU, the EU Observer reports.
The thinking behind the deal is laid bare in the EU’s March 2016 document, in which war and conflict are seen not in terms of the suffering they cause, but purely as drivers of migration. Acknowledging that identifying ‘safe’ areas in Afghanistan was ‘not obvious, given the rising insecurity in many provinces’, the document described the increasing chaos and bloodshed in the country in terms of ‘high risk of further migratory flows’ and stipulated the need for ‘leverage’ in the cooperation, development and partnership agreement being negotiated at the time – that is, making aid conditional on Afghanistan’s agreement to take back refugees refused asylum in Europe.
Europe’s prioritisation of returns over humanitarian protection renders hollow its much-vaunted respect for human rights, and its leaders silent in the face of similar actions by other countries. Thus, nearly 400,000 Afghan refugees have returned from Pakistan since July 2016 after facing harassment reportedly including night-time police raids, denial of health care and withdrawal of education from their children, in the Pakistan government’s version of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ towards refugees, particularly unregistered ones. The Turkish government is giving Afghan refugees cash to return home – US$25 and a promise of more when they get back, to help them resettle, which is not honoured, according to a HRW report. But condemnation of these measures by Europe is impossible in the light of the EU’s own actions.
Similarly, condemnation by the EU of executive bypassing of democratic safeguards and the rule of law in other countries becomes impossible, when the Council bypassed the European parliament in brokering the deal. The parliament’s approval is required when the EU enters into readmission agreements with third countries; the Council described the deal as a ‘Declaration’ to get round the requirement. As Statewatch director Tony Bunyan said, this was not the first time the EU’s executive had avoided democratic scrutiny of a controversial deal: ‘Under the dodgy EU-Turkey deal we have two Letters and a Statement; now for the Afghanistan deal there is to be a “Declaration” – yet again by-passing formal law-making and parliamentary scrutiny. Yet again the Council demonstrates its contempt for the rule of law.’
The Afghanistan deal is about return of refused asylum seekers (which begs the question of why asylum is being refused when war is engulfing the country). It commits the Afghan government to take back its own nationals. It has many precedents – the EU has such agreements with seventeen countries including Sri Lanka, Russia and Pakistan. Member states meanwhile have signed bilateral return agreements with dozens of countries: most of Africa, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Mali and Nigeria; Asian countries including Sri Lanka, China and Vietnam; and Russia, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. These may be in the form of police cooperation agreements, memoranda of understanding, administrative arrangements or clauses in trading agreements with countries of origin or transit. Most commit the poorer partner to readmitting its own nationals; some oblige it to take back other nationals who have transited through its territory en route to Europe. But the EU-Afghanistan deal is the first to stipulate return of citizens whose country is in the grip of an intensifying war.
The EU-Turkey deal: Turkey (and Greece) as holding pen
The EU- Afghanistan deal follows on the heels of the EU’s notorious deal with Turkey in November 2015 – another deal which bypassed the European parliament – whose objective was not readmission (a readmission agreement with Turkey was signed in 2014), but to curb migration from other countries through Turkey. In exchange for a pledge to loosen visa restrictions on Turkish nationals and to reopen stalled accession talks for Turkey to join the EU, and €3 billion for assistance with refugees, Turkey agreed to implement strong border controls to prevent the arrival of Syrians, and to take all migrants intercepted in its waters as well as those returned from Greece. In the process, Turkey was declared a ‘safe third country’ for refugees, despite its geographical reservation to the 1951 Refugee Convention which means that no non-European refugees are officially recognised. The two million Syrian refugees in Turkey are marginalised, impoverished and at constant risk of arbitrary detention and deportation, which is why so many have tried to get to Europe. The only positive element in the deal was the insistence that Turkey open its job market to Syrian refugees. The plan provided for the resettlement in the EU of one Syrian refugee for each one returned to Turkey from Greece – this was pure ‘window dressing’, as unrealistic as the 160,000 relocations over two years from Greece and Italy pledged in September 2015, of which only a few thousand have been implemented.
Between January and July 2016, Turkish coastguards stopped over 33,000 refugees, mainly Syrian, trying to leaving Turkey for Greece. Within hours of the deal, according to Amnesty International, Turkey deported thirty Afghan asylum seekers, without giving them a chance to put their case for protection. Later in March, reports emerged of border guards shooting Syrian refugees trying to enter Turkey. Meanwhile, the first 200 deportations from Greece to Turkey, from Chios in early April 2016, were ‘rushed, chaotic and violated human rights’, according to Human Rights Watch; the authorities deported at least thirteen people who had indicated that they wanted to claim asylum, in breach of EU assurances; did not inform people they were going to be deported, did not tell them where they were being taken, and did not allow some of them to take personal possessions. The returns process ground to a halt as Greek officials and appeal tribunals decided the issue of whether Turkey was safe on a case-by-case basis, ruling in many cases that it was not. A backlog quickly built up of tens of thousands of people waiting in appalling conditions in the camps of Lesbos, Chios and Lesbos, prey to malnutrition, disease and attacks by fascist thugs.
Meanwhile, in mainland Greece, tens of thousands more are stuck in limbo, unable to move on through Europe because of the closure of the Balkans route with walls, barbed wire fences, armies with tear gas and sometimes live ammunition, police with dogs and truncheons – to all of which EU officials have turned a blind eye. The impression is hard to erase that the EU’s reluctance to help Greece with its reception of refugees – it has agreed to fund a total of only 50,000 reception places – and the almost total failure of the relocation scheme, are means of punishing Greece for its refusal to repel refugees from its coastline in 2015. Greece is becoming a vast open prison.
As for the EU’s partner in the Turkey deal, for eighteen months, president Tayyip Erdogan, has been rivalling his neighbour, Syrian president Bashar al Assad, in brutality towards perceived opponents. Large parts of the Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir and Cizre have been turned into ruins and flattened by Turkish armed forces. As Patrick Cockburn observed, this war on Erdogan’s own people has failed to provoke an international outcry or even attract the attention of Western media that express outrage when similar methods are used by the Syrian army. And since the attempted coup earlier this year, more than 110,000 people have been sacked or suspended from their jobs, 37,000 have been arrested, including hundreds of journalists and editors, all critical newspapers closed down and nearly 400 organisations suspended, and senior military officers have sought asylum in European countries. Amnesty International has reported credible claims of torture of detainees, including throttling, beatings, burns and rape. None of these events has threatened the existence of the deal.
Concerns about human rights violations have led to a (non-binding) vote in the European Parliament urging a freeze on EU membership talks because of the Turkish government’s ‘disproportionate repressive measures’ – but the vote did not urge an end to the deal on migration. It is the Turkish government which is threatening to tear up the migration deal if its demands for visa-free travel and progress towards accession to the EU are not met.
Erdogan’s threat echoes that of Libya’s former leader Colonel Gaddafi, who in August 2010 said he would ‘turn Europe black’ by allowing sub-Saharan African migrants to pass freely through Libya to get to Europe, unless he was given €5 billion a year. Two months later, a deal was done: Gaddafi got EU financial support to the tune of €50 million over three years, and a network of thirty detention centres sprang up in Libya for migrants. While the current government is incapable of policing Libya’s coastline, and refuses to accept returns from Europe, the detention centres have survived Gaddafi’s downfall and are still part-funded by the EU. Often run by militias, they are hotbeds of corruption and endemic anti-black racism, where allegations of torture, sexual abuse and forced labour are rife.
Libya and Turkey have in common the EU’s determination to use them as EU gatekeepers. But as the numbers coming to Europe through Turkey have fallen dramatically as Syrian refugees are prevented from entering Turkey and the coastguard stops them from leaving for Greece, so the numbers coming via north Africa – and specifically Libya – have soared. With law enforcement agencies weak or complicit, nearly 171,000 migrants, a record, have reached Italy by boat from Libya so far in 2016. The figure confirms what is already well known – that attempts to suppress migration simply push migrants into adopting more difficult and dangerous routes. The IOM’s confirmed death toll in the Mediterranean for 2016 was 4,699 by 25 November, far higher than the 3,777 recorded for the whole of 2015, despite the smaller numbers crossing overall.
Protests and objections
There was widespread criticism, concern and anger at the deals. The UN human rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein was concerned that human rights obligations were being overlooked in the EU-Turkey deal, while Medecins sans Frontieres, Oxfam, UNHCR, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee all pulled out of the ‘hotspots’ in Greece in protest at the sudden change in their role from reception to detention centres. In Spain, United Left took a case to the country’s supreme court, arguing that the government of Mariano Rajoy were participating in a criminal conspiracy by their participation in the agreement, whose provisions on the forced return of persons in need of international protection contravened the Spanish penal code and international law.
And in October, twenty-six international and European NGOs, including Save the Children, Doctors of the World, Amnesty International, PICUM, the International Federation of Human Rights, the European Network against Racism and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, signed an open letter of protest to the European Parliament at the EU-Afghanistan deal, particularly focusing on its bypassing of parliament, preventing debate and allowing it to ignore concerns about the dangers facing returnees.
 Joint Commission-EEAS non-paper on enhancing cooperation on migration, mobility and readmission with Afghanistan (Restricted do no: 6738-16, pdf)  ‘UN aid chief calls for scaled-up support to one million people on the move’, UN News Centre, 7 September 2016.  ‘Why Afghan refugees are facing a humanitarian catastrophe’, BBC News, 12 October 2016.  ‘Thousands of child refugees deported back to war zones’, Independent, 9 February 2016.  ‘EU-Afghanistan returns plan: another “dodgy” deal’, Statewatch, 30 September 2016.  See ‘Inventory of agreements linked to readmission’, http://rsc.eui.eu/RDP/research/analyses/ra/ (accessed 15 November 2016).  ‘More than 33,000 apprehensions in Turkey’, News that Moves, 26 July 2016.  See Statewatch observatory, The refugee crisis in the Med, 28 March 2016.  See ‘First Turkey deportations riddled with abuse’, HRW, 19 April 2016; ‘Greece may have deported asylum seekers by mistake, says UN’, Guardian, 5 April 2016.  ‘Diary’, London Review of Books, 20 October 2016.  See Global Detention Project, Libya immigration Detention Profile, , ‘Libya’s detention centres accused of torturing migrants and refugees’, Guardian, 22 June 2014; ‘”They beat us with chains”: life inside Libya’s detention centres’, IRIN, 27 May 2015.  IOM, Missing Migrants Project, Mediterranean, 2016.  ‘EU-Turkey deal: opposition party to file criminal charges against government’, Statewatch, 21 March 2016.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.