Red Cross questions Turkey refugees deal

A Syrian family waits after being escorted into the harbour by the Greek Coast Guard, which found them drifting offshore. June 2015, Kos. [Freedom House/Flickr]

EXCLUSIVE / Francesco Rocca, the vice-president of the International Red Cross Federation, questioned the European Union’s controversial refugee repatriation agreement with Ankara on the first day refugees started being sent back to Turkey, has learned.

Criticism is piling up on the EU-Turkey deal reached last month to send back thousands of refugees to Turkish territory from the Greek islands where they landed.

Rocca expressed his views during a private meeting with the EU’s Regional Policy Commissioner Corina Crețu on Monday (4 April).

The rare broadside from the Red Cross, which usually refrains to criticise member states in which it operates, came just as Greece — supported by 1,900 officials from EU agencies and member states — sent 202 people back to Turkey.

Rocca, who is also the president of the Italian Red Cross, told the Commissioner “three times” that he did not understand why Europe signed an agreement with a country ― Turkey ― which has not fully ratified the Geneva convention, a Red Cross official told EURACTIV.

The same official argued that the institution could not support the scheme designed by Europeans to send refugees back, because the Greek centres to register potential asylum requests (hotspots) are turning into “detention camps”.

The official explained that the Red Cross had not been so vocal in criticising the EU-Turkey deal, because it was concerned about the impact on its workers on the ground.

The Red Cross opposition follows harsh criticism of numerous NGOs and doubts by the UNHCR about the expulsion programme. Amnesty International said the deal “can only be implemented with the hardest of hearts and a blithe disregard for international law”.

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Rocca told the Commissioner that the Red Cross has over one million volunteers supporting local authorities across Europe in handling the massive influx of refugees.

Meanwhile, the Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, expressed his surprise about the Red Cross’s criticism.

He told EURACTIV that “we didn’t have any signal like this one from the Red Cross, we cooperate in a very good way with them, also on the ground.”

“For us, it is very important that what is happening on the ground is done according to the EU legislation and the international law. Lets hope this mechanism proves its efficiency,” he added.

Mayors against the deal

Criticism of the EU-Turkey deal also came from the mayors of some of the EU’s largest cities, who are at the forefront when it comes to dealing with the massive influx of refugees.

A group of mayors met on Tuesday (5 April) with Crețu and other senior EU officials from the Commission.

Colombe Brossel, the vice-mayor of Paris, told EURACTIV that the agreement “is not a good solution either in terms of the European values or in terms of the efficiency”.

Ada Colau, the leftist mayor of Barcelona, and a rising star in Spanish politics, said she disliked the EU-Turkey agreement, adding that “Europe will be lost if it tries to shield itself out of fear for those in need of asylum.”

“Europe is in danger because of the policies it is implementing,” she stressed.

But not all the mayors shared the same opinion. The Mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, said the agreement was a step in the right direction. “We needed it because there was confusion, and our citizens needed to in order to ring some order to the situation,” Laan told EURACTIV.

Mayors also lamented the administrative burdens and lack of access to EU funds to deal with the crisis on the ground. They see the legal status of asylum seekers as an “important challenge” because it hinders local authorities from providing them with basic services like healthcare from day one.

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