Turkey’s forcible return of around 30 Afghan asylum seekers just hours after the European Union (EU)-Turkey refugee deal came into force shows that implementing the deal would risk refugees’ lives from the word go, Amnesty International said.
The organization has received credible information indicating that Turkey violated European and international law by forcibly returning the asylum-seekers, who fear attacks by the Taliban, to Kabul without granting them access to an asylum procedure.
“The ink wasn’t even dry on the EU-Turkey deal when several dozen Afghans were forced back to a country where their lives could be in danger. This latest episode highlights the risks of returning asylum seekers to Turkey – and the knock-on effects the deal is likely to have for refugees transiting through Turkey. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia.
At 11:40pm on Friday, March 18, a few hours after EU and Turkish leaders signed the deal in Brussels, Amnesty International received a panicked call from an Afghan asylum-seeker, “H.R.” [initials changed for security reasons].
He said he was on a plane in Istanbul, and then called again around an hour later during the flight’s layover in Ankara. He said he was being forcibly returned to Kabul along with around 30 other Afghan women, men and children, after their requests to apply for asylum in Turkey were refused.
H.R. said that he had been part of a group trying to reach Greece by boat. They were apprehended by the Turkish coastguard and then detained in the western coastal city of İzmir. After five days in detention, he said he was physically forced to put his thumbprint on a document “agreeing” to a voluntary return to Afghanistan. He was not given a copy of the document.
H.R. told Amnesty International by phone: “We don’t want to go back because we are in danger in Afghanistan. If we go back, we will be killed by the Taliban.”
The flight from Ankara to Kabul left at 1:30 am on Saturday, March 19. Amnesty International has seen a photo of H.R.’s boarding pass, as well as a travel document issued by the Afghan authorities in Turkey, apparently showing that he was “deported because of illegal entry [to Turkey]”.
Although H.R. responded to messages mid-day on Sunday in Kabul, subsequent attempts to reach him have failed and his phone appears to have been switched off.
When contacted by Amnesty International about the returns, the Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management acknowledged the return of 27 Afghans, but insisted that all were returned voluntarily and that none had requested asylum.
The events described by H.R. are identical to forced returns and other abuses documented by Amnesty International in a December 2015 report.
The organization found that refugees and asylum-seekers were apprehended at the western border, detained without access to lawyers, and then forcibly returned to Syria and Iraq after being forced to sign “voluntary return” papers. At the time the European Commission responded that it would keep this “serious matter under review,” however it is still not acknowledging the violations as documented by Amnesty International.
In recent months, growing numbers of refugees intercepted en route to Greece have been transferred to the EU-funded Erzurum Removals Center, from which they have been forcibly returned to their countries of origin without access to lawyers and asylum proceedings. Without any human rights benchmarks or independent monitoring of the EU-Turkey deal’s implementation, there is no guarantee that such abuses will not be repeated.
“Returns to Turkey cannot proceed on the basis that Turkey is a safe country for refugees. The EU should adopt an independent resettlement plan and work with its partner Turkey to end the abuse of refugee rights,” said Dalhuisen.
While Turkish law protects the right of asylum seekers to apply for asylum from detention, Amnesty International has documented many cases where this right has not been granted in practice. Asylum applications for people who remain within Turkey are rarely processed. Amnesty International has repeatedly made freedom of information requests regarding the number of claims processed by the Turkish authorities and the number of people provided with refugee status. The authorities have repeatedly refused to provide this information on the grounds that it is “confidential.”