German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited a refugee camp in south-eastern Turkey on Saturday in an attempt to bolster a migration deal between the European Union and Ankara that is drawing heavy criticism from rights groups.
Merkel, EU President Donald Tusk and European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans visited a camp in Nizip - near the Syrian border and about 40 kilometres east of Gaziantep - to inaugurate an EU-funded project in support of Syrian children and hold talks with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
In a deal agreed to last month, the EU is offering Ankara a package of incentives - from billions in refugee aid to progress on visa-free access to the bloc for Turkish citizens - in exchange for help in returning migrants. Turkey already hosts 2.2 million Syrian refugees.
Championed by Merkel and EU leaders but called inhumane by critics, it is aimed at discouraging people smuggling via treacherous sea routes by cutting off the main migration trail from the Middle East to Europe.
"Our goal is not only to stop illegal migration, but for refugees to have more opportunities near their home," Merkel said at a press conference at Gaziantep University, adding that she had been "very impressed" with Turkish efforts at the Nizip camp.
She said that EU-funded projects that form part of the migration deal are intended to provide opportunities for all 2.2 million Syrians living in Turkey - not just the 10 per cent to 15 per cent living in camps - and to pave the way for "all children to have an education."
Davutoglu said that the deal had already had a significant impact and that the number of people illegally crossing the Aegean Sea each day had dropped from 6,000 in November to 130.
"We have fulfilled our side [of the deal]," Davutoglu said, adding that visa-free access to the EU for its citizens is "essential." Turkish leaders have previously warned that the agreement will collapse if the EU fails to grant visa-free access.
Tusk praised Davutoglu and his government, saying his visit to the camp had shown him that Turkey "is an example for the whole world on how we should treat refugees."
The EU has faced severe criticism over the deal, including from the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, parliamentarians at the Council of Europe, opposition politicians in Germany and rights watchdogs. Many say Turkey is not a safe country to return migrants to.
"Instead of touring a sanitized refugee camp, EU leaders should look over the top of Turkey's new border wall to see the tens of thousands of war-weary Syrian refugees blocked on the other side," said Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch's Europe division.
"Then they should go to the detention centre where people deported from Greece are held incommunicado," she said.
Merkel is also under fire for her decision earlier this month to grant a Turkish request to allow the prosecution of German comedian Jan Boehmermann, who mocked President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on television. Under German law, a person can be prosecuted for insulting a foreign head of state.
It was the latest incident involving the media to strain diplomatic relations and spark a battle over free speech. In March, a public broadcaster showed a satirical song that poked fun at Erdogan, prompting Ankara to summon the German ambassador.
Merkel said that she had addressed Turkey's recent decision to deny accreditation to a German TV journalist from public broadcaster ZDF, which is also embroiled in the defamation scandal. "We spoke very openly and very honestly," and "many things were said," Merkel said.
Merkel's popularity has slipped in Germany as critics accuse her of ceding to Turkish pressure because she needs Ankara's help in halting the refugee influx, even as Erdogan has taken an increasingly aggressive stance toward the press and opposition critics.
By Friederike Heine
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