The Greek government has sidelined members of an independent authority that had blocked the deportation of Syrian refugees, following sustained pressure from other European countries.
Greek MPs voted on Thursday to change the composition of the country’s asylum appeals board, in an attempt to sideline officials who had objected on legal grounds to the expulsion of Syrians listed for deportation to Turkey.
The appeals board had jeopardised the EU-Turkey migration deal, the agreement enacted in March that is meant to see all asylum seekers landing on the Greek islands detained in Greece – and then deported.
While Greek police had enacted the first part of the plan, Greek appeals committees have largely held up the planned deportations – potentially giving Syrians greater incentive to reach Greece. The appeals committees argued that Turkey does not uphold refugee law, and is therefore not a safe country for refugees.
Currently the three-person appeals committees consist of one government-appointed official, and two appointed independently by the UN refugee agency and Greece’s national committee for human rights.
After pressure from European politicians who feared a new surge in arrivals to Greece, Greek MPs have voted to create new committees formed of two administrative judges and one person appointed by the UN, meaning that state officials will now outnumber independent ones on the committees.
An independent appeals committee member interviewed by the Guardian in the run-up to the law change said it was a political move designed to bend an independent judicial process to the will of the executive.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said the change was “a serious blow to the independence of the committee. We think like legal scientists. We have a specific view that is based on legal analysis. If we lose our [places on the committee] then the cases will be handled the way that politicians want.”
The migration minister, Yannis Mouzalas, conversely said the change would in fact make the boards more independent. “Having been enlightened by my colleagues in Europe, we are introducing an amendment to the way the appeal committees are formed which ensures their independence, introducing two judges who are evidently independent,” Mouzalas said in a speech to parliament.
The change caused internal divisions within Syriza, the governing party in Greece. In an internal letter leaked to the media, five Syriza MPs asked Mouzalas to withdraw his amendment. “This amendment is on the border of what is constitutional and not consistent with our common [Syriza] position regarding human rights. It doesn’t have our support because its goes against our fundamental political positions,” they wrote.
The Greek government, as well as the EU and many of its members, believe that Turkey is a safe country for refugees because it offers them a basic level of protection. But rights groups say this is not enough, and that Turkey does not offer them the higher protection refugees are owed under the terms of the 1951 UN refugee convention.
Despite recent legislative changes, Turkey does not in practice offer most Syrians the right to work. While Syrian children nominally also have access to education, over 300,000 school-age children are not in school, and many are instead working in factories or farms.
Turkey denies deporting Syrians back to Syria, or firing on them at the border – but rights groups have documented hundreds of expulsions to Syria, and there are multiple reports of Syrians being shot as they try to reach safety on Turkish soil.
In related news on Friday, the charity Médecins Sans Frontières said it would no longer accept funding from EU members such as Britain and Greece, in protest at the continent’s response to the refugee crisis.