International Obligations from the Political to the Personal: How Greece’s Suspension of Asylum Violates International Law and Basic Human Dignity

By Kristen Davis


In March 2016, Turkey and the EU signed an agreement (colloquially known as the “EU-Turkey Deal”) that arranged for Turkey to stop the number of refugee arrivals in the EU bloc in exchange for funds for handling the millions of refugees that Turkey hosted and would continue to host.[1] The EU-Turkey Deal predominantly aimed to stop the mass flow movement between Turkey and the Greek islands. The core tenet of the deal was that every refugee arriving irregularly (predominantly by boat, without permission of passage) to Greece would be returned to Turkey, regardless of whether or not they were seeking asylum.[2] In exchange for this return, an EU member state would resettle one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every refugee that arrived irregularly that was captured and returned to Turkey.[3]

After the signing of the deal, camps and reception centers on the Greek islands were transformed into detention centers. The Greek government changed its asylum procedures and introduced a “fast-track procedure” which allowed the rejection of an asylum application at first instance.[4] This was based on the assumption that Turkey is a safe country for asylum seekers and refugees.[5] A number of legal battles ensued after the fast track procedures were implemented. The Greek courts often found in favor of the claimant that Turkey was not safe to be returned to, due to Turkey’s repeated deportation of refugees to active conflict zones such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Turkey’s actions of deportation into conflict zones violates the fundamental principle of international law of non-refoulement, which mandates that “[n]o Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”[6] The disagreements between the Greek courts and the EU-Turkey deal has led to three years of a standstill and the overcrowding of the Greek islands, leading to deteriorating conditions in the camps and detention centers as the asylum seekers are not allowed to leave the island. Out of the tens of thousands of arrivals, only a small percentage have been returned to Turkey[7]; the others remained trapped in appalling conditions. This illustrates the crux of the issue in the EU-Turkey deal: the return of irregularly arrived refugees to Turkey would consequently result in a complete disregard for international law.

Where the Greek islands currently host tens of thousands of refugees, Turkey has long been struggling as they are hosting millions. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees worldwide, with their numbers coming in at just over 4 million.[8] 3.7 million of them are Syrian refugees, and over 400,000 are refugees and asylum seekers from other States.[9]

On February 27, 2019, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that it would no longer block the passage of refugees into the European Union. This decision came after over 30 Turkish soldiers were killed in a Syrian raid in Idlib.[10] Within days, thousands of refugees had amassed on the land border between Turkey and Greece, and the number of arrivals by boat across the Aegean Sea had steadily climbed. President Erdogan stated that 18,000 migrants crossed into the EU by February 29; Greek authorities stated that 10,000 refugees had been stopped from illegally entering the land border.[11] Neither official ever cited as to where these numbers were coming from. After days of clashing on the land border between Greece and Turkey, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mistotakis suspended all asylum applications for one month, starting March 1, 2020.[12] Mistotakis stated that the suspension of asylum was legal under Article 78(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which states that “[i]n the event of one or more Member States being confronted by an emergency situation characterized by a sudden inflow of nationals of third countries, the Council, on a proposal from the Commission, may adopt provisional measures for the benefit of the Member State(s) concerned. It shall act after consulting the European Parliament.”[13] Prime Minister Mistotakis did not consult with the Commission, eroding the possibility for the Commission to send a proposal to the Council and for the Council to consult with European Parliament. Furthermore, while Article 78(3) allows for provisional measures to be adopted by the Council, this article does not allow for the suspension of the internationally recognized right to seek asylum and the violation of the principle of non-refoulement.[14]

Almost immediately after Greece announced the suspension of the right to asylum, UNHCR denounced the situation at the border and Greece’s response, citing to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and stating that there was nothing within that convention that provided a legal basis for the suspension of the right to asylum application.[15] In an open-letter penned by 85 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to PM Mitsotakis, the President of the European Parliament, the President of the European Council, and the President of the European Commission, the organizations expressed their opposition that regardless of the universal agreement that Greece has the sovereign right to control its borders, the right to seek asylum is a “fundamental human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.”[16]

Even amidst global denouncement from the UN, NGOs, and other States, Greece has refused to withdraw the Emergency Legislative Decree that suspended the right to asylum application. While Greece acts in violation of international law by refusing applications for asylum, the individuals most affected are subject to increasingly inhumane treatments. Thousands of refugees are fleeing war-torn areas as they fear for their lives; amass at the border between Greece and Turkey, they are met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons. As conversations have swirled between parties regarding the complete dissolution, or the reinstatement, of the EU-Turkey deal, the most urgent challenge now is the prioritization of the protection of human life. What those answers are, and how they are to be implemented cannot be assumed to be an easy task, however, the disregard for international law and human dignity should not even be considered an option.



[1] EU-Turkey Statement, 18 March 2016, EU-Turkey statement, 18 March 2016.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4]Fast Track Border Procedure (Eastern Aegean Islands),

[5] Id.

[6]  1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Art. 33(1)

[7] Greek Ministry for Citizen Protection Press Release of 27 January 2017 available at:

[8] Global Focus: UNHCR Operations Worldwide, Turkey,

[9] Id.

[10] 33 Turkish Soldiers Killed in Syrian Raid in Idlib, 28 February 2020,

[11] Syria War: Turkey Says Thousands of Migrants Have Crossed to EU,

[12] @PrimeMinisterGR, Twitter, March 1, 2020,; Emergency Legislative Decree, 01 March 2020

[13] TFEU, art. 78(3)

[14] UNHCR Statement on the Situation at the Turkey-EU Border, 02 March 2020,

[15] Id.

[16] Open Letter by 85 Organizations Regarding Rights Violations of Refugees,

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