Commission: Refugee push-backs are illegal


The European Commission indirectly warned Greece and Bulgaria today (19 November) to stop turning down Syrian refugees at their borders with Turkey, after the UN issued a similar call just a few days before.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres called last Friday on Greece and Bulgaria to stop turning back Syrians fleeing their war-ravaged homeland.

Bulgarian authorities have reportedly bragged of turning down refugees at the border.

According to the government website, Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev, who is also deputy prime minister, has said that in just one day more than 100 persons, and previously more than 150, were from entering the country. Hundreds of policemen have been sent to the Bulgarian border with Turkey to push back prospective immigrants.

The impoverished country is struggling to deal with the some 7,000 refugees from Syria already on its soil, with more and more still managing to arrive.

Both Greece and Bulgaria have begun the construction of fences on their borders with Turkey. Greece has erected a 12.5km wall at a critical section of the Greece-Turkish border near the town of Orestiada, while Bulgaria has announced plan to build a similar, 30-km fence near the town of Elhovo.

Michele Cercone, spokesperson for home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström, told EURACTIV that pushing back asylum seekers was against EU and international law.

“Push-backs are simply not allowed. They are not in line with EU and international obligations. Member states cannot, shall not and should not carry out any push-back,” he said.

Asked how laws against push-backs were consistent with the fact that several member states had erected walls or fences at their borders, Cercone conceded that EU countries were free to decide their own border protection measures.

“This is of course their choice. But we have always said that walls do not solve problems. What solves problems is a consistent structural management of migratory and asylum seekers’ flows,” Cercone said.

He explained that this was implying that member states should be able to manage these flows in full respect of fundamental rights and international and European obligations.

“Nobody coming or arriving to the EU territory and asking for asylum can be pushed back or can be denied this possibility,” he said, adding that this stemmed from the core values on which the EU was built.

Asked if the Commission had any particular message for Bulgaria and Greece, Cercone said this was a message to all member states.

The UNHCR is to visit Bulgaria on Friday, accompanied by Bulgarian EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, who is responsible for humanitarian aid and crisis response. 

Since 1999, the EU has been working to create a Common European Asylum System to deal with immigration for political or humanitarian reasons.

New EU rules have now been agreed, setting out common standards and co-operation to ensure that asylum-seekers are treated equally in an open and fair system – wherever they apply.

But EU countries rejected a European Commission proposal for more shared responsibility in dealing with asylum requests and that immigrants arriving in the countries with a disproportionate share should be relocated to other EU member states.

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