The UN says some people in the first batch of refugees returned from the Greece to Turkey as part of an agreement between Ankara and the EU may have been dispatched mistakenly.
Vincent Cochetel, the director of the UN refugee agency’s Europe bureau, said 13 Afghans and a number of Congolese nationals who were returned Monday had not had any chances to claim asylum.
“For four days after March 20, Greek police did not register any intention to seek asylum as they were not prepared [or] equipped for this, so we started providing forms to people who had declared their intention to seek asylum,” Cochetel told The Guardian newspaper.
“The police received most of the people with these forms and… forgot some apparently. It is more a mistake than anything else, we hope,” he added.
EU officials dismissed the allegations, while refusing to say whether the 28-member politico-economic bloc would investigate the claims.
“According to our information, all those persons who were returned were aware of their rights and had the opportunity to claim asylum,” Tove Ernst, the migration spokesperson for the EU commission, said.
The European Council on Refugee and Exiles, which is a coalition of 90 European refugee charities, demanded an immediate suspension of the deportations.
“ECRE joins the growing number of calls for an immediate halt of the transfers to Turkey,” said its secretary-general, Catherine Woollard. “It’s not only a question of capacity in Greece: the deal itself is fundamentally flawed.”
“We are very concerned but not surprised to hear that asylum seekers might have been returned to Turkey ‘by mistake.’ Our assessment of capacity in Greece from March showed serious gaps — and the information we have from those on the ground is that the situation has not significantly improved,” she said.
Turkish officials say Greece has postponed the return of the next group of refugees to Turkey from Wednesday to Friday. No deportations were carried out on Tuesday.
Under a deal signed between EU and Turkey last month, Ankara agreed to take back all the refugees — including the Syrians — who had used its territory to illegally reach Greece in return for a number of commitments from the EU.
One such commitment is that the EU will take in one Syrian refugee directly from Turkish refugee camps in return for every Syrian the bloc returns to Turkey, with a cap at 72,000 asylum-seekers. Non-Syrians have no way into Europe.
Leaders from EU member states, who met with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on November 29, 2015, also pledged to provide €3 billion ($3.19 billion) to Turkey to help it handle more than two million refugees in the country.
EU leaders also promised to open fresh negotiations on Turkey’s accession process to the union, and to reward Turkish citizens with visa free access to the Schengen zone.
The United Nations human rights chief has voiced concern about the deal, saying it could lead to the “collective expulsions” of people fleeing war in violation of international law.
Officials in Athens say Greece will send some 750 refugees and asylum seekers back to Turkey.
Europe is facing an unprecedented influx of refugees, who are fleeing conflict-ridden zones in Africa and the Middle East, particularly Syria.
Many blame major European powers for the unprecedented exodus, saying their policies have led to a surge in terrorism and war in those regions, forcing more people to flee their homes.