EU border closures worsen humanitarian crisis with people used as bargaining chips

Published: 17th March 2016


A decision to shift the EU’s responsibility for refugees to Turkey would see the bloc bargaining its core values and abandoning fundamental legal obligations. Such a decision, which leaders may make this week, would set a dangerous precedent that human rights don't matter anymore. Already European border closures and restrictions are dramatically worsening the humanitarian crisis for refugees and migrants living in desperate conditions from Greece to Macedonia and from Serbia to Sicily. 

In a joint letter to EU leaders, Oxfam, the Danish Refugee Council, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee and 17 other leading agencies that work directly with refugees and migrants in Europe are asking the member states meeting at Thursday’s summit to respect the fundamental rights of refugees and learn lessons from the last year that a containment approach to migration costs lives. Since 2014, about 7,500 people have died at sea, many of them children.

Oxfam’s migration policy lead, Sara Tesorieri, said: "The decision to ‘end’ the Balkans route is a piece of political theater in which the European Union has pandered to domestic politics at the expense of its values. It doesn’t solve the real crisis of people arriving in Europe. There is no doubt that the European Union and Turkey should work together, and they need each other. However, the proposed horse-trading between Turkey and the EU uses human beings as bargaining chips. When they meet on Friday, EU and Turkish leaders need to put people’s rights and safety first."

Vincent Koch, Oxfam's Regional European Migration Response Coordinator, said: “Women and children are sleeping outside in freezing, wet and muddy conditions. Food and clean water are in short supply, and diseases, such as Hepatitis A, have appeared due to the deplorable conditions. These people are driven by a simple motive: the search for safety and the desire for dignity." 

In the Balkans, closed borders have forced tens of thousands of people into makeshift camps without access to essential items for survival such as shelter, food, health care and water. The situation has also made it harder for humanitarian organizations to reach areas quickly. Border guards are reportedly assessing refugee status on the basis of 10 minute interviews and in Sicily, new arrivals are receiving expulsion notices without having access to any information.

Ann Mary Olsen, International Director in the Danish Refugee Council, said: "We are witnessing a terrible domino effect in Europe. There is a great risk that large refugee camps will spring up in the countries on the outskirts of Europe. It is a huge problem that people are being denied the chance to have their asylum claims processed and that people are being rejected based soley on their nationality rather than protection needs. The proposal will leave refugees with no other choice than to seek alternative dangerous routes in the hands of smugglers. The refugee crisis cannot be solved by closing borders. We need to stand together to ensure a dignified treatment and protection of refugees in Europe. It is not borders that need protection - it is the refugees."

Jane Waterman, Executive Director IRC-UK and Senior Vice President Europe, said: “The proposals in their current form risk pushing people into the hands of smugglers and traffickers on increasingly dangerous routes. It is entirely possible to properly manage borders without neglecting basic legal and moral obligations. The EU has the capacity to manage this situation effectively and humanely, but it needs to show the necessary courage and political will. It’s time to focus on protecting people, not closing borders. European leaders need to live up to their moral and legal obligations and do much, much better.”

Elements of the proposed deal in its current form would potentially violate international law and people’s fundamental rights, including the right to claim asylum. Turkey is hosting more refugees than any other country, about 3 million people, and is already overwhelmed. Any agreement reached must guarantee basic safeguards and services such as education, healthcare and employment. 

“The Refugee Convention was created in the wake of the Second World War and has served us for 65 years. There has never been a more desperate time in places like Syria and instead of living up to legal obligations, European politicians are desperately trying to change or bypass them in short-sighted measures to stem the flow of refugees in ways that offer anything but solutions,” said Edouard Rodier, NRC's Europe Director.

EU leaders should agree to new ways to provide safe and legal routes for people in need of protection, including issuing humanitarian visas, large-scale resettlement programs and the application of family reunification policies. Europe has a right to control its borders, but above all has an obligation to manage migration in a humane way.

Notes to editors

1. Signatories to the letter to European leaders include:

  • Association Vasa prava BiH – Legal Aid Network
  • Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull'Immigrazione (ASGI)
  • Civil Rights Program Kosovo 
  • Croatian Law Network
  • Danish Refugee Council
  • Doctors of the World UK
  • Greek Forum of Refugees 
  • Group 484
  • International Rescue Committee UK
  • Legal-Informational Centre for NGOs in Slovenia
  • Local Democracy Foundation
  • Macedonian Young Lawyers Association
  • Magna
  • Medici per i Diritti Umani Onlus
  • Medicines du Monde - Greece 
  • Norwegian Refugee Council
  • Oxfam
  • People in Peril Association
  • Save the Children International
  • Solidarity Now
  • World Vision

The letter can be downloaded here.


2. These agencies have staff working with refugees in Europe are reporting a miserable situation on the ground:


  • About 45,000 people are stuck in Greece and as many as 3,000 people arriving each day across the sea from Turkey. The transit centers, NGO-rented hotel spaces, safe spaces and day centers in Athens are all full to capacity – including the city's disused former airport - and the Greek government is now looking to use old sports stadiums despite the lack of adequate hygiene and sanitation or segregated spaces for women. There are also plans to use several former military bases. 
  • Thousands of people have scattered throughout central Greece - between Athens and the northern border - as police have banned bus companies from taking Afghan refugees to the frontier. 
  • Some Syrians have been among those turned away at the Macedonian border where about 13,000 people are camped out in the hope that the border will reopen. 


  • At Macedonia's northern border about 1500 refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have been stranded for the last three weeks - with 400 refugees from Syria and Iraq camped in the mud in the no man's land between the two countries. 
  • Border officials are determining refugee status without any formal procedure on the basis of a 10 minute interview and refusing entry to anyone they deem to be an economic migrant.


  • Hundreds of migrants from Burkina Faso, Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Nigeria, Togo, Ivory Coast and Guinea have been served with expulsion notices and are therefore unable to access any form of support from the state.

Contact information

For enquiries regarding the EU summit and interviews with Sara Tesorieri:

Florian Oel | Brussels | | +32 2 234 11 15, m +32 473 56 22 60

For other enquiries:

Attila Kulcsar | London | | +447471142974

For updates, please follow @Oxfam and @OxfamEU

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