EU leaders continue to push controversial refugee deal with Turkey

Published March 13th, 2016 - 04:00 GMT
Thousands of refugees are stranded at the Greek-Macedonian border. (AFP/Louisa Gouliamaki)
Thousands of refugees are stranded at the Greek-Macedonian border. (AFP/Louisa Gouliamaki)

Another week, another summit: 10 days after their last meeting, EU leaders will gather in Brussels on Thursday in the hope of striking a deal with Turkey aimed at stemming the flow of refugees into Greece. But many are asking: at what price?

Europe is grappling with an influx of migrants and asylum seekers that brought over 1 million people to its shores last year, with more than 140,000 following since January. Many are fleeing the war in Syria, but economic migrants have also joined their ranks.

The main route for people trying to reach wealthy northern Europe had been from Turkey via Greece, and onward through the Western Balkans.

With resources strained in transit and destination countries - and political goodwill running thin - governments along the route have resorted to quotas and border closures to keep migrants out, while the European Union has struggled to deliver a unified solution.

The bloc has now put its hope in a highly controversial deal being hashed out with Turkey, under which Ankara would take back any new migrants arriving in Greece, while the EU would directly resettle an equal share of Syrians living in Turkey.

The approach aims to discourage migrants from putting their lives in the hands of smugglers, who can charge high prices to place people in rickety dinghies crossing the Aegean Sea. Those brought back from Greece are expected to go to the bottom of the list for asylum in Europe.

"Those who illegally reach the Greek islands will certainly not be among those who are resettled first," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said following Monday's summit.

The plan, unveiled at an EU-Turkey summit on Monday, would also see Brussels offer Ankara concessions on visa-free travel to Europe and progress on its long-running EU membership bid.

Human rights advocates are aghast at the proposal, while many - including top UN officials - are questioning its legality.

"Trading in people is the dehumanizing expression of a failed European asylum policy," the European Council on Refugees and Exiles wrote.

Karim Lahidji, the president of the International Federation for Human Rights, called the readmission plan "repulsive."

The deal hinges on recognizing Turkey as a "safe" country, in which asylum seekers can apply for and receive protection as defined by the international Refugee Convention; will not be sent back to an unsafe environment; and are not at risk of persecution.

But Turkey only applies the Geneva convention to European asylum seekers, while critics point to the poor conditions in which many refugees there live.

Legal experts are busy drafting details of the deal ahead of the two-day summit that starts Thursday. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said it might require "some modifications" to Greek and Turkish law, while stressing: "The decision is legal."

But the arrangement contains other unpalatable aspects, critics say. Even its proponents agree privately that the timing is not ideal, amid a Turkish crackdown on opposition media.

Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, who has taken a tough stance on migration, asked this week if the EU is not "ultimately throwing our values overboard" with the deal.

"The EU is surrendering to populists and fearmongers. This puts at stake the entire EU project," the Catholic charity Caritas said in a statement.

The negotiations with Ankara raise uncertainty for the many people already en route to Europe. It is unclear what will happen to those stranded in Greece and further upstream, while policymakers fear alternative migration routes opening up.

The EU must also drum up willingness for member states to accept Syrian refugees from Turkey, following the dismal record of previous attempts to distribute asylum seekers across the bloc. The Czech Republic has already said it will not up its number of asylum places.

Discussions are underway on a "voluntary" scheme, according to Dutch Migration Minister Klaas Dijkhoff, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency. But this must be "more than just window dressing," he warned, calling on everyone to participate.

Other challenges include Cyprus's opposition to speeding up Turkish EU membership talks, at a delicate time in negotiations to reunite the country with the Turkish-occupied north of the island.

But Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven - whose country has taken in one of the highest shares of asylum seekers in Europe - said it was necessary to face reality and put a stop to the thousands of people risking their lives at the hands of unscrupulous smugglers.

"Those who are against everything also need to show the alternatives," he said in the European Parliament this week.

By Helen Maguire

© 2022 dpa GmbH

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