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Afghanistan: Greece floats possibility of deporting asylum seekers to Turkey

Greek migration minister says Athens would not become 'gateway' for new wave of Afghan refugees fleeing the country after Taliban takeover
Afghan migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos protest Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on 16 August 2021 (AFP)

Greece floated the idea of deporting Afghan migrants to Turkey on Wednesday, hours after the EU foreign policy chief said Ankara would play an important role in preventing the crossing of irregular Afghan migrants to Europe.

Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi told local broadcaster Skai TV that it was "still early" to say whether Athens would face a new wave of refugees, adding there was not a "clear image of what conditions will prevail in Afghanistan in coming months".

Mitarachi called Turkey "a safe country for Afghan citizens", and said no country could "carry out" the return of migrants to Afghanistan.

"The first priority is humanitarian... we are discussing the transport of a few families, [people who were] interpreters for the Greek army or cooperated with us in whatever way," he said.

Mitarachi also insisted that with Greece already sheltering 40,000 Afghans, it would not again become a "gateway for irregular flows".

"Twenty thousand of them are requesting asylum and 20,000 are recognised refugees," he said.

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For months, Greece has tried to persuade Turkey to take nearly 2,000 migrants whose asylum claims Athens has rejected. 

According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), 90 percent of Afghan refugees are hosted in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan, while Turkey hosted over 117,000 Afghan asylum seekers and refugees in 2020.

Earlier on Wednesday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said while there would likely be a lot of Afghans trying to bypass Turkey for Europe, Ankara would play a "very important role" in preventing the crossing of migrants into Europe.

"There has already been an Afghan migration for the last three months. They are and will be coming to Europe via Iran, Iraq or the Eastern Mediterranean. This shows that we need to work hard with transit countries. The humanitarian crisis must be prevented. Here, Turkey will play a very important role. There will be many people who will try to pass through Turkey, but this is a concern for the future, not the present," Borrell told Spanish state-owned public radio broadcaster RNE.

Turkey has the largest refugee population in the world, according to UNHCR. In contrast, official European Commission data indicated that some 2.6 million refugees lived in the EU in 2019, making up 0.6 percent of the population in the bloc.

The UNHCR reported that European countries collectively welcomed only 11,600 resettled refugees in 2020.

Western leaders have expressed concern about the Taliban's seizure of power in Afghanistan shortly after the US withdrew its forces from the country after nearly 20 years. But many have nonetheless said Europe would not be welcoming large numbers of Afghan refugees.

Strict criteria for visas and asylum have led many to seek to enter Europe illegally - including through deadly routes across the Mediterranean Sea that have seen thousands of people drown.

Earlier this year, EU member state Denmark passed a controversial law paving the way for the transfer of asylum seekers and refugees to a third “host” country outside Europe, effectively exporting Denmark’s asylum procedure and enraging human rights advocates.