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"We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalized for a mass expulsion operation," said the Greek mission director from Doctors without Borders. (Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Humanitarian Groups Refuse to Partake in 'Mass Expulsion' of Refugees

'It is incomprehensible how Europe has basically suspended the rights of these people who are looking for protection in Greece'

Nika Knight Beauchamp

In a stinging rebuke to Europe's political leaders, four prominent humanitarian groups are ceasing operations in refugee camps on several Greek islands this week because of what they characterize as human rights violations in the wake of the controversial EU-Turkey refugee deal.

"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, the head of the Doctors without Borders (MSF) mission in Greece, on Tuesday.

"It is clear that the main message of the EU-Turkey deal agreement is the prevalence of maintaining borders over saving lives."—Janti Soeripto, interim CEO of Save the Children International

The EU-Turkey deal, which involves trading refugees between Europe and Turkey in a "one-for-one" scheme, requires the construction of "detainment centers" to hold refugees for indefinite periods while asylum applications are processed.

The aid organizations MSF, Save the Children International, Oxfam, and the Norwegian Refugee Council all describe the "unlawful and unjustified" detainment of asylum seekers as an egregious violation of human rights, and argue that taking part would constitute both a betrayal of their core values as well as international law.

"Asylum applications, interviews, and assessments could take weeks, or even months, and the result is that asylum-seekers are, and will, be placed in unlawful detention, contrary to International and European Human Rights Law,” said Janti Soeripto, interim CEO of Save the Children International, as the organization announced its withdrawal from Greece's detention centers on Thursday.

"It is incomprehensible how Europe has basically suspended the rights of these people who are looking for protection in Greece," said Giovanni Riccardi Candiani, country representative for Oxfam in Greece, on Thursday. "The detention of people, who committed no crime and who have risked their lives in search of security and a better future, is an offense to the same values that Europe has so passionately defended in the past."

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) announced (pdf) on Wednesday that it would also suspend operations on the Greek island of Chios, a so-called "hotspot" where many asylum seekers land in their attempt to reach Europe, which is being transformed into a detention center. The organization "determined that it is no longer possible to implement humanitarian activities" on Chios, as the NRC "will not and cannot be associated with any system designed to facilitate return and detention."

All four aid organizations announced that they will continue to provide aid to migrants in other locations in Greece, where they still maintain freedom of movement, and will continue to advocate for refugees' rights to "seek sanctuary and dignity" in Europe, as Oxfam put it.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad, joined the chorus of critics on Thursday as he expressed strong "concerns regarding arbitrary detention of refugees and migrants" resulting from the EU-Turkey deal.

Indeed, in the days following the deal's announcement many human rights advocates are feeling grim about the future of the millions of asylum seekers who continue to land on Europe's shores.

Soeripto also argued Thursday that "it is shameful that Europe is finding ways to cut back on commitments already made to offer safe and legal routes for vulnerable refugees into Europe—the result is that the number of these routes is now actually diminishing, not to mention that their availability in this scheme still requires people to risk their lives at sea."

Soeripto lamented, "it is clear that the main message of the EU-Turkey deal agreement is the prevalence of maintaining borders over saving lives."

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