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EU Won’t Release Report on Greece Suspending Refugee Asylum

Αssociated Press

Unaccompanied migrant minors, wearing face masks to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, walk to board an airplane bound for Germany at the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens, on Saturday, April 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

The European Commission has refused to release a preliminary legal assessment into Greece's decision to temporarily shelve asylum applications that was imposed after Turkey tried to push thousands of migrants across the land border late in February.

The EUObserver reported the commission said it needs to further study the measure, three weeks after it began doing so and with the bloc’s leadership not ready to take a stand despite having the evidence in hand.

Greece suspended the applications before lifting the ban on April 1, with more than 100,000 refugees and migrants being held in detention centers and camps, including 42,000 on islands, seeking sanctuary after the European Union closed its borders to them.

Any refugees or migrants who managed to cross into Greece as of March 1, when asylum was put in limbo, are being held in detention centers before being sent back to their homelands.

That came after Turkey sent some 10,000 to the northern land border as Greece closed its side and sent riot police and Army units to repel those trying to enter, seeing an exchange of tear gas and with migrants tossing Molotov Cocktails after saying they were urged by Turkish officials to cross the border.

Turkey pulled them back just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit but while the applications were suspended, the EU said it’s still not ready to give its assessment despite howls from human rights groups.

The EU is generally timid in making decisions for fears of upsetting governments of member states, even pulling back from criticism of Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban ruling by decree as an authoritarian government, and cracking down on the media.

An internal note from the European Commission's legal service had already been drafted and shared with President Ursula von der Leyen shortly after Greece imposed the restrictions and gave a preliminary analysis, the news site said.

"We are now in dialogue with the Greek authorities to find out what exactly that is," Ylva Johansson, EU Home Affairs Commissioner told reporters.

But Margaritis Schinas, a Vice-President of the commission in charge of migration and from Greece’s ruling New Democracy, made it clear the government will be backed, essentially making the report favorable. “EU support will be unequivocal," he said of Greece.

When asked that the document be released through a freedom of information request, the European Commission declined.

"The frankness, objectivity and comprehensiveness of the legal advice would be seriously affected if legal advice on highly sensitive subjects, as in the present case, would be disclosed," it said as a defense for not releasing public information.

But it was suggested that the real intention is not to further upset relations with Turkey, which has been trying to join the bloc since 2005 and with EU officials not wanting to further rile Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for fear he will send more refugees and migrants into Europe through Greek islands and borders.

Von der Leyen held a meeting with Erdogan in March, along with European Council President Charles Michel who represents the heads of state of the 27 member countries of the bloc.

A European Commission spokesperson said final positions are formulated by a weekly roundtable meeting of the 27 commissioners, a time-consuming process.

"It is not because there is an existing paper somewhere as part of the reflection process of the European Commission that necessarily there is a specific opinion of the College that we can communicate," he said, the EUObserver report added.

"To our understanding the asylum procedures in Greece right now are functioning as well as they can in the current circumstances."

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis suspended the asylum procedures which he said was allowed by the EU treaty if there is "emergency situation characterized by a sudden inflow of nationals".

But it must first be based on a proposal by the European Commission with input from the European Parliament, which didn't happen.