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Greece Pauses Migrant Deportations As Asylum Claims Mount


Greece says it is paused its program to send migrants back to Turkey. The plan ran into problems just a day after the controversial deportations began. Europe had promised not to return people until they were screened. No blanket deportations was the rule. Now, the U.N. says Greece forgot to process asylum claims for more than a dozen people who were sent back yesterday. Joining us now is Vincent Cochetel of the U.N.'s High Commission for Refugees. Welcome to the show.

VINCENT COCHETEL: Yes, thank you very much for having me.

SHAPIRO: How did this happen?

COCHETEL: Well, it happens because there was a bit of chaos on one of the islands. There's a detention center on the island of Chios. After the agreement on the 20 of March between the European Union and Turkey, the Greek police was not prepared to register asylum requests on the center. So we had to improvise a system whereby our agency, The U.N. Refugee Agency, register people, inform the Greek police. And then there was chaos during the weekend. There was riots in the detention center. People broke out of the detention center. And there was a bit of confusion yesterday. So we believe by mistake certain asylum-seekers were returned with the economic migrants back to Turkey.

SHAPIRO: You say there was chaos on the Greek island of Chios where these asylum-seekers were being processed. Is that resolved now? Do you think this problem is something in the past or are there still issues that need to be worked out?

COCHETEL: Well, we have requested the Greek authorities to take all the appropriate measures so such mistakes do not reoccur. and we have called on both parties, namely Greece and Turkey, to put adequate safe guards in place so people in need of international protection have a chance to have their claim individually examined.

SHAPIRO: You say Greece needs to take certain steps. Does Greece have the resources it needs to implement those steps?

COCHETEL: Greece has requested support from the European Union. This support is coming, so Greece should have soon the capability to run that two-step procedure to examine the people's claim within a period of time of about two weeks. Yet not everything is in place, so we hope that the Greek authorities will take all the precautionary measures not to send back asylum-seekers to Turkey at this stage.

SHAPIRO: Was it a mistake to try to implement this plan before the resources and programs were in place?

COCHETEL: Well, I will not say it was a mistake. On the one hand, you could say it's premature. On the other hand, this should have taken place a long, long time ago.

SHAPIRO: How long do you think it will be until this is sorted out?

COCHETEL: We hope it's a matter of days, a couple of weeks maximum. And we'll be vigilant to make sure that the system that's in place is fair and that we don't have a blanket return of asylum-seekers to Turkey.

SHAPIRO: These people who were mistakenly sent back to Turkey were Congolese and Afghan asylum-seekers, is that right?

COCHETEL: It's correct. I mean, we don't know anything about their claim. You know, they may have a legitimate claim for asylum. They may not have a claim, but they have applied for asylum, so we believe they should be given a fair chance to have their case examined.

SHAPIRO: Ultimately, this system seems to depend on a black-and-white designation of asylum-seekers versus economic migrants. And many observers say it's actually much more gray than that. How do you handle that?

COCHETEL: Well, those who say that it's more gray than that have to think about what sort of legal frameworks are applicable. I mean, there are laws to protect asylum-seekers and refugees around the world. There is no right for migration, for, let's say, economic migrant. That does not exist. It does not mean that economic migrants like any other human being don't have human rights to be treated in accordance with elementary consideration of humanity but they don't have the right to stay in Europe or to apply for asylum because they're not in need of asylum.

SHAPIRO: Vincent Cochetel is the director for Europe at the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. Thanks for your time.

COCHETEL: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.