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Joint Press Release

Eight years of failure of the EU-Turkey deal: the “safe third country” concept comes under scrutiny by the Court of Justice of the European Union

Monday 18 March marks the eighth anniversary of the signing of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal. At the same time, Greece’s resulting practice of arbitrarily rejecting thousands of asylum claims on the basis of the “safe third country” concept is under scrutiny by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). This is the first-ever CJEU hearing of Greek “preliminary questions” on the subject of asylum. On the occasion of today’s CJEU hearing, PRO ASYL and Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) are calling for an end to the deal that violates human rights.

Can a non-EU country be labelled a “safe third country” in the European Union, even if it systematically refuses to take back asylum seekers? The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Luxembourg has to clarify this question eight years after the signing of the EU-Turkey deal in case C-134/23 Elliniko Symvoulio gia tous Prosfyges. Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), PRO ASYL partner organisation, and the Greek Council for Refugees (GRC) had filed a request for annulment against the classification of Turkey as a “safe third country” by Greece. The Greek Council of State, Greece’s highest administrative court, then referred the matter to the CJEU. The hearing took place today, the two organisations appeared before the CJEU in Luxembourg through their legal representatives and kept track of the proceedings.

Eleni Spathana, lawyer at Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), represented the organisation at today’s hearing before the CJEU. According to her statement: 

“The EU-Turkey deal shows how far the European Union is willing to deviate from basic principles of the rule of law. It is shameful that even eight years after the failed agreement and its fatal consequences, the EU is still pushing ahead with the normalisation and expansion of a policy that relies on the externalisation of responsibility and harsh border procedures. In doing so, the EU is jeopardising human lives and ultimately democracy itself. This policy is neither legal, nor legitimate, nor sustainable for the European Union and Greece and must be stopped.”

Karl Kopp, Executive Director of PRO ASYL, says

“The concept of a safe third country symbolises the EU’s refusal to take responsibility for people seeking protection. The EU-Turkey deal has driven the dismantling of refugee protection in Greece and throughout Europe for eight years. The fact that, on this sad anniversary, a new edition of the agreement and the outsourcing of asylum procedures to non-EU countries is being debated in Germany and Europe is extremely dangerous. Although the agreement is not working as planned, it has led to massive human rights violations of people seeking protection. The EU-Turkey deal epitomises a failed policy of foreclosure, which seeks to rid itself of responsibility for people seeking protection on a grand scale”

Background: Concept of "safe third country" and its application in CEAS 

The concept of a “safe third country” is at the centre of the EU-Turkey deal of 2016, which allows Greece to reject asylum applications as “inadmissible”, without examining the merit of the reasons for fleeing from the country of origin, and to refer them to Turkey. Although Turkey has not taken back any asylum seekers for four years, Greece continues to categorise Turkey as a “safe third country” to this day, in breach of international law. The Greek application of the concept is clearly unlawful, as a report by RSA and PRO ASYL recently showed, and has devastating consequences for thousands of refugees: without prospects for their lives and access to protection and rights, some of them remain in Greek camps for years under the most unfavourable conditions. 

The concept of “safe third countries” is a centrepiece of the reform of the European Union’s Common European Asylum System (CEAS). With its impending adoption, expected in mid-April, protection standards in the European Union will be significantly lowered. It is foreseeable that the expansion of the “safe third country” concept will give EU member states the opportunity to largely withdraw from refugee protection by classifying neighbouring countries or other states along refugee routes as “safe”. 

While massive tightening of asylum law is imminent as part of the CEAS reform, right-wing populist debates in Germany, the UK, Italy and other European countries are already calling for a further erosion of refugee protection: Under the keyword “outsourcing asylum procedures to non-EU countries”, highly questionable ideas are being discussed. Instead, existing resources should be proactively channelled into improving reception and asylum systems and expanding safe escape routes.

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