Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Parsing A Keystone Phrase In A Controversial Deal: 'Safe Third Country'


It's time now for our regular segment Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories we'll be hearing more about parsing some of the words associated with those stories. And today, we're going to think more about this phrase - safe third country. Those three words are key to understanding the controversy behind a deal struck by the European Union and Turkey.

The deal is designed to slow the influx of migrants to Western Europe from Syria, Iraq, Northeast Africa, Afghanistan. And it allows the EU to ship refugees to Turkey as a safe third country starting tomorrow. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now from Izmir, Turkey, to break down that phrase for us. Hey Peter.


KELLY: So in this context, what do we mean by safe third country?

KENYON: Well, safe third country - it's a term of international law. And it basically means if a country's not going to keep an asylum-seeker there while a claim is being processed - if they're going to send them somewhere else, it has to be somewhere their lives won't be threatened because of their race or religion, where they won't face torture. There's a list of criteria they have to meet.

KELLY: How safe is Turkey going to be for these people coming back? There are a lot of questions being raised, for example, about what legal protections people will enjoy or not there.

KENYON: Actually, they do have protection. It just happens to be temporary. And none of these people coming back will be allowed to apply for asylum inside Turkey itself. Only Europeans are allowed to do that under Turkey's very unusual asylum laws.

But the asylum-seekers do get this temporary protection while they're there waiting for another country to process their claim, and that's something that can take years.

KELLY: What about just the specifics of where they will go? Where will they be living?

KENYON: Well, that's really not clear. There have been camps. They've been full of something close to 300,000. Many more have been living just in apartments. And that brings us to another odd phrase; it's called non-refoulement. And that means no pushing back.

In other words, you can't send asylum-seekers back into their conflict zone they fled from. Human Rights Watch recently accused Turkey of doing exactly - forcibly pushing Syrians back across the border. Turkey denies the charge. If it were confirmed, it would expose them to a claim of not being a safe third country.

KELLY: Just in terms of how this will unfold for refugees who are going to be sent to Turkey - yeah, I know you've been talking to some of the refugees there. How do they feel about this new policy that kicks in tomorrow?

KENYON: Well, these are very sobering discussions, harrowing stories, as you can imagine of their trips. I met a Syrian woman who spent three hours in the Aegean when their boat capsized. She and her husband barely saved their three children. And she could only watch helplessly as her cousin's children died in the water. She says now if they can't make it in Turkey - it's hard to find work - she'd even think about going back to Syria.

KELLY: She would think about going back to Syria. That's because of the desperation some of these people are feeling.

KENYON: It's true. She says as bad as it is, at least I know the place. It's part of me. I'd rather be there.

KELLY: Peter, we said this agreement officially kicks in tomorrow. What should we be watching for?

KENYON: It may be very slow starting. But there may be some people coming back from Greece over the next three days certainly, and there's up to 5,000 who can come back in the first phase. And the agreement calls for as many as 72,000. And then all the questions you asked earlier kick in - where are they going to stay? Will they be able to have work? What's their future?

KELLY: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon, speaking to us from Izmir, Turkey, about the phrase safe third country. Peter, thanks a lot.

KENYON: Thanks Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.