GENEVA – The mass expulsion of refugees from Greece to Turkey under a draft EU-Ankara deal to ease the migrant crisis would be "illegal", the UN warned on Thursday, as some of the bloc's own ministers also criticised the plan.
While EU countries squabbled over how to cope with the bloc's worst migration crisis since World War II, UN rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said the proposed deal with Turkey raised "a number of very serious concerns".
"Among my concerns is the potential for collective and arbitrary expulsions, which are illegal," he told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
EU leaders had hoped the mooted deal with Turkey – due to be finalised at an EU summit on March 17-18 – could stem the flood of migrants and refugees streaming through the bloc in search of a better life, many fleeing the five-year war in Syria.
Underscoring yet again the human tragedy of the crisis, a fresh shipwreck off the Turkish coast claimed five lives including a baby as a boat full of migrants heading for Greece capsized.
The EU-Turkey plan drawn up on Monday would see Ankara take back all illegal migrants landing in Greece, in a bid to reduce their incentive to get to Europe.
In return for every expulsion from Greece, the EU would resettle one Syrian refugee from camps in Turkey – which is hosting about 2,7-million people who have fled the conflict across the border.
And in exchange for its cooperation, Turkey wants €6-billion (R102,6bn) in aid, visa-free access to Europe's passport-free Schengen zone and a speeding up of its efforts to join the EU.
Ankara's EU affairs minister Volkan Bozkir also stressed on Thursday that the deal would not be retroactive, and would "not include the existing refugees on the Greek islands".
'No future' for EU
The crisis has exposed sharp divisions in the 28-member bloc and the leaders of Greece and Germany blasted Balkan countries for slamming shut their borders.
The EU "has no future if it goes on like that", warned Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the border closures were "neither sustainable nor lasting".
Their reactions flew in the face of the response of EU President Donald Tusk, who welcomed the Balkan route closure as being part of a collective response from the bloc.
The strong words came after Slovenia and Croatia barred entry to transiting migrants from Wednesday and Serbia indicated it would follow suit.
EU member Slovenia said it would allow in only migrants wishing to claim asylum there or those seeking entry "on humanitarian grounds" and in accordance with the rules of the no-passport Schengen zone.
Prime Minister Miro Cerar said the move meant that "the (Balkan) route for illegal migrations no longer exists", while Tusk on Twitter called the decision "not a question of unilateral actions but common EU28 decision".
The border closures have created a huge bottleneck on the Greece-Macedonia border and Tsipras retorted on Twitter that Tusk should "focus efforts on implementing our common decisions and not encourage those who ignore them".
Meanwhile, even some EU ministers voiced opposition to the plan with Turkey hammered out by all 28 leaders only a few days earlier.
"I am extremely critical," said Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting in Brussels.
"I am seriously wondering whether we are taking ourselves and our values seriously or if we are throwing them overboard," she said, in a reference to concerns over human rights violations in Turkey.
'Very difficult situation'
Under pressure at home to reduce the influx, Merkel acknowledged that the western Balkan states' action "will obviously bring us fewer refugees, but they put Greece in a very difficult situation".
"If we do not manage to reach a deal with Turkey, then Greece cannot bear the burden for long," she told public radio MDR.
Her Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel noted that while some at home are "secretly pleased that the Balkan states... are doing Germany's dirty work", their actions would not help in the long term.
Merkel is battling to avoid leaving Greece in the lurch as the number of refugees stranded there is still steadily growing.
Greek authorities said on Thursday there were 41,973 asylum seekers in the country, including some 12,000 stuck at Idomeni on the closed Macedonian border.
Zeid said that more than 400 people had died trying to reach Europe in the first two months of the year alone, and described the deteriorating situation in Greece as "dramatic".
"I urge the EU to adopt a much more rights-compliant and humane set of measures on migration at next week's summit," he said.