ATHENS — Greece on Monday designated neighboring Turkey as a safe country in which to seek international protection for the majority of asylum-seekers departing its shores for Greece.
A joint decree from the Greek foreign and migration ministries said the designation applies to asylum-seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia. It said Turkey meets all criteria to examine asylum requests from these nationals, as there "they are not in any danger … due to their race, religion, citizenship, political beliefs or membership in some particular social group, and can seek asylum in Turkey instead of in Greece."
That, in theory, could reduce migration flows to European Union member Greece, as it would allow it to return asylum-seekers from these countries to Turkey — which itself has a huge migrant and refugee population.
Nevertheless, despite pressure from the EU and Athens, Ankara has shown little appetite for taking back migrants who reached Greece from its territory, despite a 2016 Turkish-EU agreement that was meant to stem illegal migration into the 27-nation bloc.
Greek officials said Athens has so far this year asked Turkey to take back 1,453 people, without success.
Nevertheless, Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi described Monday's decision as "an important step in tackling illegal migration flows" which, he said, would "force" Turkey to crack down on illegal migration and smuggling networks.
Mitarachi added that the decision "is fully in line with international law and enhances Greece's legal arsenal against (asylum) requests by citizens of … Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia, who objectively have no reason not to consider Turkey a safe country."
Greece and Turkey are historic regional rivals, and military tensions rose dangerously last year over marine boundaries. Athens accuses Ankara of using migration as a weapon, pointing to the Turkish government's failed bid last year, before the military tension, to wave thousands of migrants and refugees towards Greece.
Several human rights groups have accused Greece of illegally deporting some migrants to Turkey without letting them apply for asylum. Athens denies that.
Although a record 1 million people entered Greece through Turkey in 2015 — mostly seeking to move on to wealthier EU countries — flows have since been greatly reduced.
So far this year, just over 3,000 people have reached Greece from Turkey, mostly by sea in flimsy craft. According to the U.N. refugee agency, 47% were Afghans, 15% were Syrians and 9% were Somalis.