BRUSSELS (AP) — International aid groups on Tuesday slammed the European Union's migrant deal with Turkey, as new figures showed that the number of people seeking asylum in Europe dropped by almost half last year compared to 2016.
The deal, sealed exactly two years ago, aimed to halt the flow of hundreds of thousands of people from Turkey — most of them fleeing conflict in Syria — to nearby Greek islands in search of better and safer lives in more prosperous European countries.
The numbers of people arriving on Greek islands dropped dramatically after the agreement. But while the EU sees the deal as a great success, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others called it a failure by Europe to deal with the refugee issue adequately, saying it leaves people trapped in often hopeless situations.
"The (EU-Turkey) deal is a glaring example of Europe's failure to design and implement a unified refugee and migration policy which would respect the human rights of those crossing its borders seeking asylum," said Jenny Kavounidi, board member of the SolidarityNow aid group.
Rights groups have repeatedly complained of precarious security, poor health caused by overcrowding and increasing mental health problems due to the uncertainty faced by those in the camps, many of whom have been there for up to two years.
Only those deemed to be vulnerable cases are moved from the islands to camps on the mainland. Some 13,400 people are currently stranded on the islands.
The agreement with Turkey stipulated that those arriving after March 20, 2016 would be held on the islands and returned to Turkey unless they successfully applied for asylum in Greece. In return for helping Europe, Brussels promised Turkey fast-track EU membership talks, visa free travel for its citizens and up to 6 billion euros ($7.4 billion) to help Ankara deal with almost three million refugees on its territory.
The EU has tried to duplicate elements of the Turkey deal in agreements with other countries — mostly in Northern Africa — that migrants leave or transit to reach Europe. The bloc has always pointed to the sharp drop in arrivals over the last two years in response to criticism.
Latest figures from EU's statistics agency, Eurostat, showed almost 650,000 people applied for asylum in the 28 EU nations for the first time last year — around half the applicants in 2015 when more than a million people entered Europe in search of sanctuary or jobs.
Over 102,000 were Syrians, 47,500 were Iraqis and 43,600 were Afghans.
Almost one in three people sought asylum in Germany in 2017. Twenty percent filed in Italy, 14 percent in France and 9 percent in Greece.
Few applied in Slovakia, Poland, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Estonia.
Almost 1 million applications were still being considered by national authorities at the end of last year.