By Stephanie Nebehay
The United Nations called on Friday for legal safeguards to be in place before refugees are returned to Turkey under an agreement with the European Union, while warning that conditions in Greece are deteriorating.
Days before Turkey is due to begin taking back illegal migrants from Greece on April 4 under the deal, neither side is fully ready, with officials scrambling to be able to make at least a symbolic start as new arrivals rise.
About 51,000 refugees and migrants are in Greece, where arrivals more than doubled on Tuesday to 766 from previous days, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
“UNHCR is urging parties to the recent EU-Turkey agreement on refugees and migrants to ensure all safeguards are in place before any returns begin. This is in light of continued serious gaps in both countries,” UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told a Geneva news briefing.
The agency, which says nine in 10 of refugees arriving on rickety boats are fleeing for their lives, has voiced concerns that Turkey may deport refugees en masse to Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq where they could face persecution or violence.
“In Turkey, UNHCR has requested access to people returned from Greece, to ensure people can benefit from effective international protection and to prevent risk of refoulement,” Fleming said, using a term under the Refugee Convention that refers to unlawful deportations.
Meanwhile conditions on the islands of Lesbos and Samos – where three people were stabbed in rioting on Thursday night – and at the Athens port of Piraeus and Idomeni at the border with Macedonia are worsening, she said.
“The risk of panic and injury in these sites and others is real,” Fleming said.
The EU must provided greater support, as promised, to boost Greece’s creaking asylum system, she said. “Limited hours of registration, daily ceilings on registrations, a lack of access to the Skype system for registration set up by the Asylum Services, are at present adding to the anxiety”.