Children: The Forgotten Aspect of the EU-Turkey Deal
While policymakers nervously assess the number of migrants and asylum seekers daily arriving in Greece, adding to the population of those already stranded, the situation of children has been overlooked. And yet they comprised 40 percent of the 57,000 arrivals in Greece in February, and nearly half of all Syrian asylum seekers. Meeting their needs and respecting their rights, particularly those who face potential return to Turkey under the just-implemented EU-Turkey deal, which has proven quite controversial with humanitarian organizations, will be no easy undertaking.
At the heart of the deal is an expectation that all recent arrivals in Greece will be registered, processed, and possibly returned to Turkey within a short timeframe. The ability to meet the procedural guarantees foreseen for adult asylum seekers in the overburdened and underdeveloped asylum systems of Greece and Turkey is already legally difficult. It is almost certain, however, that the more deliberative process provided for under EU and national law to ensure that children get a fair hearing will be impossible to guarantee.
The result is that children in Greece risk falling through the cracks of the asylum system. For example, the obligation to determine whether a decision is in the “best interests” of the child is a time- and resource-intensive endeavor that cannot be compressed, especially in unaccompanied minor cases that involve tracing family members spread across the continent. Such procedures require sufficient staff trained in child-sensitive interview techniques and operating with the child’s age, maturity, and special needs in mind. Safeguards also hinge upon an appointed guardian identifying and advocating for the child’s rights, interests, and protection needs. The guardianship system for such children in Greece is at breaking point. The nascent network of volunteer guardians organized by the Greek NGO Metadrasi (13 trained volunteers by November 2015, supporting 256 unaccompanied minors over a seven-month period) is promising, but unable to catch up with the continuously high number of unaccompanied children who are arriving—150 in February alone.
Next to the operational challenges that the Greek asylum system faces, which risk depriving children of their rights, the legal challenges affecting the Turkish asylum system have even graver consequences. The Turkish law on asylum does not foresee the protection standards provided for in EU law, and only affords the rights foreseen in the 1951 Refugee Convention to those refugees fleeing “events occurring in Europe.” Even where these rights apply, the day-to-day experience for children is still one characterized by economic deprivation, legal uncertainty, and poor prospects for education and personal development. Among Syrian children enjoying the relatively privileged status of temporary protection in Turkey, three out of four of those outside of official camps are unable to access education, one in ten face economic pressures that force them into work, and one out of three are unable to access health-care services. So, can the “safe third-country” designation that Turkey has been accorded by the EU Member States be applied in the asylum procedure for children—whether accompanied or not—if it implies the denial of education and health care, and pressure to engage in underage work?
There are likely therefore to be significant legal roadblocks to returning children. For European decisionmakers putting their faith in the agreement with Turkey, the difficulties in returning children—who represent a significant portion of irregular flows—threaten to render the deal useless. Simultaneously, the worsening of already poor reception conditions sends a global message regarding the European Union’s willingness to compromise its standards in times of crisis. For the individual children caught in the legal and political minutiae of the returns mechanism, meanwhile, there are real-world consequences. Physical hardship, deterioration of mental and emotional well-being, and exposure to abuse and trafficking are just some of the documented effects.
The drivers for the escalating humanitarian crisis, namely a concentration of flows in a country with beleaguered, austerity-hit institutions, build on endemic shortcomings in the Greek reception system that saw transfers under the EU’s Dublin rules outlawed by several Member States as early as 2011. Yet calls for support have overwhelmingly focused on the mechanics of the procedure, with little attention to protection and welfare. Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) have requested interpreters, readmission experts, escort officers, and judges—not child protection experts. While civil society has been left to fill the gaps in services and meet the needs of vulnerable groups, so far with little governmental support, the budding creation of a shadow protection system underwritten by NGOs sets a dangerous precedent for European states to sidestep fundamental protection responsibilities.
Preserving the rights of refugee children requires not only a significant makeover of the legal protection regime, but also a strengthening of the broader infrastructure underpinning child-appropriate reception and asylum processes in Turkey and Greece. How the 3 billion to 6 billion euros earmarked by the European Union for support in Turkey and 700 million euros for Greece under the EU-Turkey deal caters to this very issue will have to be carefully monitored.
Beyond questions whether the EU-Turkey deal sacrifices the need to uphold basic legal principles on European soil in a quest to halt irregular flows, only time will tell if the European Union has undermined its ability to head off similar crises in the future.
This commentary draws from work done for UNICEF’s Children on the Move project, in collaboration with Kevin Byrne and Ayana Fabris.