Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The migrant crisis in Europe: Slovenia and Serbia close their borders

Serbia's Interior Ministry says Slovenia will demand valid EU visas at its borders as of midnight Tuesday, effectively closing the main Balkan migration route toward western Europe
An Afghan woman collects her laundry from a tree in Piraeus, near Athens, Tuesday, March 8, 2016. European Union leaders hoped early Tuesday they reached the outlines for a possible deal with Ankara to return thousands of migrants to Turkey and said they were confident a full agreement could be reached at a summit next week. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Continued below

Not consistent with intl law’: UN lambasts EU-Turkey ‘quick fix’ deal on refugee returns

Syrian refugees wait on a roadside near a beach in the western Turkish coastal town of Dikili, Turkey, after Turkish Gendarmes prevented them from sailing off for the Greek island of Lesbos by dinghies, March 5, 2016. © Umit Bektas
Syrian refugees wait on a roadside near a beach in the western Turkish coastal town of Dikili, Turkey, after Turkish Gendarmes prevented them from sailing off for the Greek island of Lesbos by dinghies, March 5, 2016. © Umit Bektas / Reuters

8 March, 2016
The UN refugee agency has criticized the deal struck between the EU and Ankara which seeks to send refugees back to Turkey. The UNHCR says the agreement will expose migrants to huge risks, as well as break EU and international laws on the right to protection.
Ankara offered to take back all those who cross through its borders into the EU, while resettling the same number of Syrian refugees in the EU. In return in asked for billions more in cash, as well as expedited talks on EU membership and a rapid implementation of visa-free travel. The 28 EU members agreed and the decision is set to be completed by March 17-18, pending more work by officials.

But according to the UNHCR, the decision is a “quick fix” that will create a fragmented flow of refugees all trying to find ways back into the EU.

Speaking at a UN briefing on Tuesday, Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR Europe Bureau Director, stressed that "collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under the European Convention on Human Rights. An agreement that would be tantamount to a blanket return of any foreigners to a third country is not consistent with European law, is not consistent with international law."

Another key problem associated with the decision, according to the UNHCR, is that the refugee flow would be fragmented, resulting in disparate groups that are all trying to return to the EU. "As long as the conflict is not solved, it's a myth to believe that the people will not try to leave. It may dissuade some people from leaving through that route, but it won't dissuade everмybody."

On Europe’s commitment and its implementation so far, Cochetel believes the objective of resettling 20,000 refugees in the space of two years on a voluntary basis is still “very low,” not to mention Europe’s failure last September to relocate some 66,000 refugees from Greece. In fact, it failed on an epic scale, managing to relocate only 600, according to Cochetel’s previous statements.

While Turkey currently hosts three million Syrian refugees – the largest number worldwide – its current acceptance rates for those from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan are also “very low,” the UNHCR director told Swiss radio RTS, as cited by Reuters.

"Sending back people who would not have access to protection in Turkey poses a certain number of problems in terms of international law and European law," he said. "I hope that in the next 10 days a certain number of supplementary guarantees will be put in place so that people sent back to Turkey will have access to an examination of their request [for asylum],” he dded.

Similar concerns were voiced by the UN Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), which stressed that "too many details still remain unclear."

UNICEF spokeswoman Sarah Crowe underlined that "the fundamental principle of 'do no harm' must apply every step of way." For the particular agency, this applies first to the rights of children. They are open to all sorts of dangers, including trafficking, forced labor and other forms of exploitation.

Here is live coverage from AP

Meanwhile, Amnesty International blasted Ankara’s enduring record of leaving refugees to cope alone. It called the EU decision “alarmingly short-sighted and inhumane,” noting in a Tuesday statement how Turkey has “forcibly returned refugees to Syria and [how] many refugees in the country live in desperate conditions without adequate housing.”

Amnesty’s European head, Iverna McGowan, believes that "by no stretch of imagination can Turkey be considered a 'safe third country' that the EU can cozily outsource its obligations to."

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — The Latest on continuing migration to Europe (all times local):

8:15 p.m.

Serbia's Interior Ministry says Slovenia will demand valid EU visas at its borders as of midnight Tuesday, effectively closing the main Balkan migration route toward western Europe.

The ministry says Serbia was informed of the new restrictions by Slovenia and will act accordingly and close its borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria for refugees and other migrants who don't have valid visas.

It says "Serbia cannot allow itself to become a collective center for refugees."

The measure means that thousands of migrants currently stranded in Greece on the border with Macedonia will not be allowed to proceed north toward Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria.

Earlier Tuesday, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said an EU summit — dealing with the surge of migrants and refugees over the so-called western Balkans route — has sent "a very clear message to all traffickers and all irregular migrants that this route no longer exists, it is closed."

Cerar 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.


7:40 p.m.

Turkey has reaffirmed an agreement with Greece to take back migrants attempting to reach the European Union— a key condition set by EU leaders for a landmark deal with Turkey to tackle the migrant crisis.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmed Davutoglu, in the Turkish coastal city of Izmir on Tuesday, a day after the EU-Turkey summit in Brussels.

"We have decided to intensify our cooperation and to re-affirm the bilateral agreement. That is very important," Tsipras said.

Davutoglu said the improved cooperation could "reduce the dramatic scenes seen in the Aegean Sea to a minimum."

More than 130,000 migrants and refugees have traveled to the Greek islands from the Turkish coast so far this year.

The two countries also signed a series of cooperation agreements to further integrate highway, rail and maritime transport networks.


6:30 p.m.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka says his country is ready to accept Syrian refugees directly from Turkey.

The remarks Tuesday indicate a change of position for the Czechs on the issue. Ahead of the EU summit meeting in Brussels Monday, Sobotka said the Czech Republic won't participate for the time being in voluntarily relocating refugees from Turkey.

Sobotka says the Czechs would be ready to accept the refugees as part of the previously approved plan to relocate 120,000 people among the EU member states. But he says that his country won't take a bigger number of migrants than the quota set by the plan.

As part of a broader deal, Turkey has offered to take back some migrants if an equal number are allowed into the EU legally.


5:45 p.m.

Police say a 25-year-old tour bus driver has been arrested in Athens after selling tickets to newly-arrived migrants for a trip to the Macedonian border, and telling passengers that the border was open.

The suspect, a Greek man, was arrested by the country's largest port of Piraeus, near Athens, while preparing to take 25 passengers on the 600-kilometer (375-mile) trip to the border with Macedonia.

Police say he was arrested on license violation offenses and three alleged accomplices are sought for questioning.

The arrest was announced the day after European Union leaders at a summit in Brussels declared that the Balkan migration route is being closed.

Border restrictions imposed along that route over the past month have left some 33,000 people stranded in Greece, with more than a third of that number camped out near the village of Idomeni by the Macedonian border.


5:05 p.m.

Greece's minister for migration says the government can provide shelter space for up to 70,000 migrants — roughly double the current number of people stranded in the country.

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