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Advocacy Groups Take Issue With EU's New Migrant Deal


We are going to stay in Brussels for another big piece of news out of that city. Yesterday, the European Union and Turkey reached a unanimous agreement over how to handle the waves of migrants flooding over the border from Syria. Starting on Sunday, all migrants illegally in Greece will be returned to Turkey where they will wait for their asylum applications to be processed there. In exchange, Turkey is expected to get billions of dollars in aid, Turkish citizens will get free visas for travel to Europe. Humanitarian advocacy groups are criticizing the deal though, saying it doesn't go far enough to help the tens of thousands of refugees stuck in limbo seeking asylum in Europe. Iverna McGowan is one of the critics of this deal. She's the head of Amnesty International's European Institutions Office, and she's with us now via Skype. Iverna McGowan, thanks so much for speaking with us.

IVERNA MCGOWAN: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: You've called this deal, quote, "dangerously dehumanizing." So first of all, what do you mean by dehumanizing?

MCGOWAN: What I mean by dehumanizing is that you're playing a numbers game using human lives as bargaining chips. We have to remember these are some of the world's most vulnerable people. So for every Syrian that arrives regularly risking their lives across that dangerous sea route to Greece, they would then be returned by Turkey or Greece, it's not clear. And once they're returned, another resettlement place would be made available for another Syrian. So it's clear that that person who's risked their life and returned wouldn't receive the place. In fact, it's been said that person will be put on the bottom of the list. And another Syrian would therefore be offered the place. It's really very difficult to understand the logic of that concept on any level. And of course, it is quite harrowing in this barter, one human life against another, instead of actually realizing their right to international protection in the first place.

MARTIN: Where is this resettlement place to be?

MCGOWAN: They've made a number of - a very low number proportionate to the problem of resettlement places available. No details have been released, but one would imagine that depending on some family reunification or other criteria that that person would then be flown into a European member station who've signed up to this agreement.

MARTIN: So Amnesty International has also called this plan illegal. Under what convention of law do you consider it illegal?

MCGOWAN: So there's a number of points to consider here. Firstly, the spirit of the Geneva Convention is that when you arrive at a border that your right to asylum will be recognized. So the notion of actually putting the Syrians who arrive on a boat back to another country, that first and foremost is problematic. Now, Amnesty International has repeatedly documented Syrian refugees being pushed back across the Turkish border with Syria. On top of that, Turkey would only recognize Europeans coming in as asylum-seekers or refugees. So no other nationality other than Syrians have a meaningful access to asylum. And the final point being, of course, Syrians and many refugees, they live in desperate conditions. So it's clear that by no stretch of the imagination can Turkey be considered a safe country. And the legality of this proposed deal hinges on that notion.

MARTIN: Part of the 3 billion in euros in aid going to Turkey is intended to rebuilding refugee camps. Presumably that is intended to improve the physical conditions there.

MCGOWAN: So this amount of money - though welcome and hopefully will be channeled properly to the people who need it in Turkey - is still only a very small piece of the puzzle because we are facing a global refugee crisis. There are more refugees now than any time since the Second World War.

MARTIN: The deportation is supposed to start tomorrow, which I would imagine if one is just hearing news of this and if you are a migrant in Greece would probably be very frightening. Do you have any indication of how this is actually going to happen?

MCGOWAN: We have no indication. And I think many people, even the senior officials involved in trying to orchestrate this, are scratching their heads. What I found quite chilling was in the draft of the EU-Turkey statement that was issued, it mentions that Turkey is to basically use all means necessary to stop people coming. Now, that has military undertones. And the idea that any kind of force would be used against these people who've already survived war, are already victims is quite frightening.

MARTIN: That's Iverna McGowan of Amnesty International, joining us from Brussels via Skype. Iverna, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCGOWAN: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.