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Aid activities suspended in Greek island migrant camps over Turkey-EU deal

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Darko Vojinovic/AP

(Read caption) Migrants mob a truck bringing donated firewood in the make shift refugee camp at the northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece, Wednesday. The UN refugee agency pulled out staff Tuesday from facilities on Lesbos and other Greek islands being used to detain refugees and migrants as an international deal with Turkey came under further strain.

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Several refugees camps in Greece have been turned into detention facilities since the European Union (EU) and Turkey reached a deal to curb the migrant crisis last week.

The camps have been set up to hold thousands of migrants arriving on Greek islands, as they wait for the determination of their asylum status.

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But now an increasing number of aid agencies are suspending their humanitarian activities in the camps, refusing to be part of the EU-Turkey migrant deal which they describe as “inhumane,” Reuters reported. 

Several agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Doctors Without Borders, and The Norwegian Refugee Council have shut down their operations, despite an outcry from Greek authorities saying they won’t be able to handle the migrants without assistance from the organizations.

“UNHCR is concerned that the EU-Turkey deal is being implemented before the required safeguards are in place in Greece,” said Melissa Fleming, the agency’s spokeswoman, reported The Associated Press. “At present, Greece does not have sufficient capacity on the islands for assessing asylum claims, nor the proper conditions to accommodate people decently and safely pending an examination of their cases.”

"We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalized for a mass expulsion operation and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants," said Marie Elisabeth Ingres, who heads Greece’s mission for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), reported GlobalPost.

The EU-Turkey deal, reached Friday, has received widespread criticism, largely from international organizations who say that the deal won’t be able to protect vulnerable people fleeing persecution from their own countries. If implemented, the deal will see thousands of migrants – who don’t have asylum status – sent back to Turkey. In turn, Turkey will receive up to €6 billion in aid over the next two years. Additionally, the EU will resettle a Syrian refugee from Turkey for each Syrian refugee that Turkey takes back from Greece.

But most aid agencies and human rights groups are concerned that Turkey isn’t safe for asylum seekers, as Turkish law prevents Iraqi and Afghan migrants from acquiring refugee status, Vox reported. This means that Turkey could send refugees back to conflict prone areas, an act which violates international law.

Amnesty International on Wednesday accused Turkey of forcibly returning 30 Afghan asylum seekers back to their country.

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"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," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia director, in a press statement, according to Vox.  "This latest episode highlights the risks of returning asylum seekers to Turkey."

The EU plan is a “disregard for international law covering the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director for Human Rights Watch expressing his concerns in a letter to the EU.

A very different approach is needed. There is a compassionate and rights-based response that would better enable EU member states to manage migration and address security concerns.  This should include: establishing sufficient safe and legal channels to protection, including large-scale resettlement for people found to be refugees, to reduce the incentive for people to take to boats; fair examination of asylum claims for those nonetheless still arriving irregularly in EU countries; equitable sharing of responsibility for asylum seekers and resettled refugees among EU states; vastly stepped-up support for the humanitarian needs, education and job opportunities of refugees in frontline states as pledged at the January London conference; and active engagement in addressing the root causes of violence and human rights abuses that force people from their homes.