U.N. refugee agency calls European border closures 'inhumane'

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The U.N.’s refugee agency said on Monday border closures in Europe to stop migrants were “inhumane”, and government efforts to stem the flow had averted the crisis only temporarily.

Bulgarian border police stand guard near barbed wire fence constructed on the Bulgarian-Turkish border, near Malko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, May 22, 2016. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

The border closures across the Balkans and a controversial deal between Turkey and the EU have sharply reduced the number of people crossing into Europe this year, after a million made the often perilous journey in 2015.

“There are a lot of people patting themselves on the shoulder and saying the deal worked, the people have stopped coming: but there’s more to it than that,” Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the UNHCR, said on the sidelines of the world’s first humanitarian summit.

“It has pushed the problem backwards and the problem is not yet solved.”

On the moves to seal borders, she added: “The sudden closure and the action by unilateral states was inhumane vis-à-vis many vulnerable people.”

Under the deal between Europe and Turkey, Ankara has agreed to take back illegal migrants from Europe in return for aid, accelerated EU accession talks and visa-free travel to the bloc.

Host country Turkey has taken in nearly 3 million refugees since the start of the Syrian civil war and spent nearly $10 billion. But aid groups say it is not a safe country for refugees.

Last week a Syrian on the Greek island of Lesbos won an appeal against a decision to forcibly return him to Turkey, successfully arguing that Turkey does not afford refugees the full protection required under the Refugee Convention, rights group Amnesty International said.

Fleming said it was not yet clear whether this would set a legal precedent.

Finalisation of the EU-Turkey deal has been held up by disagreements over Turkey’s anti-terrorism law, which Brussels wants brought in line with European standards.

Billed as the first of its kind, the United Nations summit in Istanbul aims to develop a better response to what has been called the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two.

Editing by David Dolan and Andrew Roche