BRUSSELS — The United Nations and human rights groups voiced deep concerns Tuesday about the legality of the European Union’s plans to send thousands of migrants back to Turkey amid fears the country cannot properly provide for them.
EU and Turkish leaders agreed to the broad outlines of a deal that would essentially outsource Europe’s refugee emergency. People arriving in Greece having fled war or poverty would be sent back to Turkey unless they apply for asylum.
For every migrant sent back, the EU would take in one Syrian refugee, thus trying to prevent the need for people to set out on dangerous sea journeys, often arranged by unscrupulous smugglers.
Turkey stands to gain billions of dollars in refugee aid, faster EU membership talks and visa-free travel for its citizens within four months under the plan, whose details are to be worked out at a March 17 EU summit.
In another development, Serbia’s Interior Ministry said that as of midnight Tuesday, Slovenia will demand valid EU visas at its borders, effectively closing the main Balkans migration route to western Europe for thousands who have continued to cross from Turkey to Greece.
Under the outlines of the proposed deal reached in Brussels, migrants who enter Europe illegally will be sent back and have to join the end of the queue to enter Europe, said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But the U.N. and rights groups are not convinced that Turkey is a safe destination. More than 2.7 million refugees, many from Syria, are in Turkey. Most are housed by Turkish families or live out in the open, and few have government-funded shelters.
“I am deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told EU lawmakers.
In Geneva, UNHCR Europe bureau director Vincent Cochetel told reporters that collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under international law.
Amnesty International also warned that the plan, whose details are to be worked out at a March 17 summit in Brussels, is legally flawed. Europe’s attempt to have Turkey designated as a safe country is “alarmingly shortsighted and inhumane,” the group said.
“Turkey has forcibly returned refugees to Syria, and many refugees in the country live in desperate conditions without adequate housing,” said Iverna McGowan, head of Amnesty’s European office.
“By no stretch of imagination can Turkey be considered a ‘safe third country’ that the EU can cozily outsource its obligations to,” she said.
The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders said the deal is cynical and a sign that “European leaders have completely lost track of reality.”
“Clearly, Europe is willing to do anything, including compromising essential human rights and refugee law principles, to stem the flow of refugees and migrants,” said the group’s humanitarian adviser Aurelie Ponthieu.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon discussed the migrant issue in Berlin with Merkel, and is “in line” with the comments from the UNHCR, said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
“The secretary-general wants to see a (human) rights-based approach to the issue,” Dujarric said. “That’s what he said publicly and those are the discussions he had with Merkel.”
Ban also said he’s worried by Europe’s increasingly tough asylum policies, growing anti-refugee rhetoric and attacks on migrants.
“Extreme right-wing and nationalistic political parties are inflaming the situation where we need to be seeking solutions, harmonious solutions based on shared responsibilities,” Ban said.
He added that the EU “can do much more” to manage the influx, which pales next to what Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have done to take in more than 5 million people.
Europe has been overwhelmed by the arrival of more than 1 million people in 2015 and more than 140,000 so far this year, mostly into Greece via Turkey. In response, nations along the migrant route have built barriers and tightened border controls.
Often these unilateral moves have complicated already chaotic migrant movements, putting more pressure on European neighbours and weighing on countries along the route through the Balkans north out of Greece.
Turkey moved swiftly to start implementing key commitments outlined in Brussels, reaffirming an agreement with Greece for readmitting migrants.
Prime Minister Davutoglu hosted Greece’s Alexis Tsipras in the Turkish coastal city of Izmir and said heightened co-operation with Greece could “reduce the dramatic scenes seen in the Aegean Sea to a minimum.”
Thousands of migrants are stuck at Greece’s northern border with Macedonia at a makeshift and overcrowded camp near Idomeni. Many had risked their lives crossing the Aegean in rickety boats.
Heavy, overnight rain had turned much of the camp into a muddy swamp, with people trying to dry their clothes and blankets at small fires.
In Serbia, the Interior Ministry said it was informed of Slovenia’s new restrictions calling for valid EU visas at the border. That means Serbia will act accordingly and close its borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria for those who do not have valid documents. That effectively shuts the main route through the Balkans toward western Europe.
“Serbia cannot allow itself to become a collective centre for refugees,” the ministry said.
Earlier Tuesday, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said the Brussels summit dealing with the surge of people over the western Balkans sent “a very clear message to all traffickers and all irregular migrants that this route no longer exists, it is closed.”
Cerar had said “today or tomorrow” Slovenia will start allowing passage only to those migrants with documents required by members of the Schengen passport-free travel zone.