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Turkey’s role in the refugee crisis is crucial but there is room for improvement

EESC calls for uniform protection of refugees in Turkey and for the establishment of a mechanism to monitor compliance by both sides with the 2016 EU-Turkey Statement on Refugees

At its plenary session on 14 February, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) adopted an opinion examining the role of Turkey in the refugee crisis. Despite recognising Turkey's efforts in hosting more than three million refugees, the EESC stressed the need for Turkey to grant them the non-discriminatory protection required by international law.

The EESC – the EU body representing European organised civil society – also expressed concern regarding the state of human rights in Turkey, as well as the obstacles increasingly encountered by Turkish civil society organisations, given their important contribution to the humanitarian situation of refugees.

"Turkey has played and continues to play a particularly crucial and decisive role in the refugee crisis, which has become one of the EU's main "unresolved" problems," said the rapporteur of the opinion, Dimitris Dimitriadis. "It has endeavoured to tackle the problem using its own resources, albeit with additional help from the EU and the international community," he added.

As the first country of reception for refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict since it began in 2011, Turkey has hosted the highest number of people from Syria – some 3.2 million. Most of them were hoping to reach the countries of the European Union, especially those in Central Europe.

In March 2016, the European Union and Turkey reached an agreement – the EU-Turkey Statement on Refugees – to curb irregular migration and replace it with legal channels for resettling refugees within the EU.

In the opinion, the EESC called for the establishment of a "serious, independent monitoring and surveillance mechanism" which would monitor whether both sides were complying with the EU-Turkey Statement on Refugees. This should be carried out "in cooperation with the Turkish authorities, international NGOs and specialised humanitarian organisations," said the EESC.

The EU-Turkey statement stipulated that all new irregular migrants crossing to Greece from Turkey were to be returned to Turkey after their request for asylum was deemed unfounded, following an individual assessment in line with EU and international law. A 1:1 mechanism was introduced, which meant that for every Syrian returned to Turkey from Greece, another would be resettled from Turkey to an EU Member State.

Following the agreement, the number of people losing their lives in the Aegean or unlawfully crossing EU borders has decreased significantly. The report published by the European Commission in September 2017 placed the average number of arrivals at 75 a day, with the total number of Syrians resettled from Turkey to the EU amounting to almost 9 000 people. Under the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, the EU granted EUR 3 billion to support refugees in Turkey between 2016 and 2017.

However, at the same time, there has been a rapid increase in refugee flows to other southern EU countries, which was "a source of particular concern for the EESC". 

The Committee also said that the EU Member States' performance in terms of resettlement and relocation of refugees continued to be disappointing. The EESC "strongly condemned the xenophobic attitude of some Member States to the refugee crisis and considers this stance to be contrary to the fundamental values of the EU."

"The EU has not adopted a common position on the refugee crisis and to this day it has failed to put in place a credible and effective common European immigration policy or a common European asylum system, owing to the unjustifiable refusal by some Member States to comply with their legal obligations," Mr Dimitriadis said.

Although it has ratified the Geneva Convention on Refugees, Turkish legislation still provides for different standards of protection for Syrians and nationals of other third countries, discriminating against applicants on the basis of their national origin.

The EESC is asking Turkey to set up a uniform system for granting international protection by removing the geographical barriers for non-European asylum seekers and abolishing the distinction between Syrians and nationals of other third countries, since Syrian refugees were originally granted "visitor" status and then temporary protection, without having the right to request refugee status.

The Committee also criticised the fact that refugees in Turkey faced "serious obstacles, shortcomings and problems as regards access to work and basic services, such as health and welfare, education and, more generally, integration into society."

During the discussion, some EESC members expressed concern about classifying Turkey as a safe third country given its track record of compliance with the principle of non-refoulement and following reports of instances of refugees being denied entry or of collective push-backs into Syrian territory.

"It is a big challenge for a country to host so many migrants, but it does not take away the responsibility to receive them in a dignified manner," EESC members concluded during the discussion on the opinion.

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PR 5/2018 Turkey’s role in the refugee crisis is crucial but there is room for improvement