Turkey blocks UNHCR access to Syrian refugees

UNHCR has struggled to access a refugee camp in Turkey where Syrians are brought after leaving Greece. [Fabio Sola Penna/Flickr]

UN refugee agency UNHCR has been kept from visiting asylum seekers after they were deported from Greece to Turkey, according to a leaked letter from the organisation’s Athens office.

UNHCR has had limited access to a Turkish refugee camp that houses Syrians who are sent from Greece under an agreement that EU leaders sealed with Turkey in March 2016. EU leaders called UNHCR a “key actor in the resettlement process” of migrants as part of the deal. The organisation agreed to help hold up the agreement by assessing human rights conditions in Turkish refugee camps.

As of early December, 748 migrants were sent to Turkey from Greece under the agreement, including 95 Syrians.

Turkey agreed under the deal to take in anyone who arrives in Greece and is sent away by authorities. In exchange, the EU said it would take in one Syrian from Turkish refugee camps for every person sent back, and also promised to double its aid money to Turkey.

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A UNHCR representative in Athens wrote in a letter that the organisation has not been able to regularly access refugee camps in Turkey or monitor whether anyone sent there from Greece is given legal protection, according to a copy of the document that was published on the website of the NGO Statewatch. The name of the recipient was redacted from the letter.

Syrians have the right to apply for temporary protection in Turkey under the EU agreement. Only 12 of the 82 Syrians who had been sent to Turkey from Greece as of November were given legal protection there, according to the letter.

“Despite its best efforts, UNHCR has not been able to contact the majority of the others,” the official wrote in the letter.

The letter, dated 23 December, says that UNHCR staff requested access 16 times since April to the Duzici centre, a camp in southern Turkey where Syrians are sent after they leave Greece. They were allowed in 12 times. During visits to the camp, UNHCR staff was able to interview 45 out of the 82 Syrians brought there.

The UNHCR representative also complained that the camp requires visiting staff members from the organisation to apply for accreditation five days in advance. That “does not allow for timely monitoring of some individual cases,” the official wrote.

Syrians are supposed to finish legal registration within seven days of arriving at the camp and can then move to another part of Turkey.

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Administrative hiccups are preventing UNHCR workers from documenting what happens to Syrians who are deported from Greece to Turkey, according to the letter. The aid workers don’t know how many Syrians receive legal protection after arriving in Turkey because authorities there don’t pass on that information.

“UNHCR does not systematically receive information on the legal status and location of individuals who have been readmitted from Greece and is not always able to track their location and monitor their situation once they have left the reception centre,” the letter reads.

Fabrice Leggeri, the director of EU border agency Frontex, praised Turkish authorities’ handling of the migration agreement during a speech in Bavaria earlier this month. He said that not many migrants have been sent back to Turkey so far because Greek authorities are slow to determine whether they are eligible for asylum.

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