BRUSSELS – Turkey offered on Monday to help the European Union ease the migrant crisis by accepting the mass returns of people arriving in Greece by boat but demanding that EU countries take Syrian refugees from Turkish camps and other sites to resettle them in Europe. The arrangement was discussed at a summit in Brussels and further talks will continue on 17-18 March.

The proposal implies that all newly-arrived irregular migrants or those without documentation and outside of normal procedures who are arriving from Turkey in Greek islands would be sent back to Turkey. The EU would meet all costs.

Refugees and migrants board Turkish Coast Guard Search and Rescue ship Umut-703 after a failed attempt of crossing to the Greek island of Lesbos off the shores of Canakkale. Photo: Reuters

The deal would not affect the hundreds of thousands of migrants in Europe whose applications for asylum are still in process, according to an EU official, the Washington Post reported.

EU Commission spokesperson for migration Natasha Bertaud told the BBC that all migrants rescued in Greek waters would be screened in a Greek island. All irregular migrants would then be sent back to Turkey, where they would have to go through screening again and returned to their country of origin if they happen to have no right to international protection, which only applies to Syrians.

As for those migrants rescued in Turkish waters, they would be sent back to Turkey and the government gets to decide their status.

Last year, over a million people, risked their lives to enter the EU illegally by boat, marking Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War Two. Most of the people fleeing to Europe come from Syria, with the remnant coming from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran and other countries in war.

Turkey uses the deal to defend its interests

The Turkish government wants to clear out huge refugee camps for some of the nearly 3 million Syrians who have escaped the deadly conflict by fleeing to Turkey, which is also using the deal to ask for more aid money from the European Union and accelerate its plan to get EU membership.

Should the agreement be made, a payment of €3bn that was promised in October will be speeded up and the EU would discuss extra funding to help Turkey tackle the crisis. Turkey asked for the aid to be raised to €6bn.

Moreover, Turkey is seeking to ease access to the bloc for its citizens and a decision will be made in June regarding the visa-free travel for Turkish.

Leaders’ reactions

European Council President Donald Tusk said the leaders at the meeting had made a “breakthrough” and that he hoped the deal could be concluded in the next week.

Tusk remarked that Turkish’s proposal represented a significant progress, as it sent “a very clear message that the days of irregular migration to Europe are over”. Last Thursday he urged all illegal economic migrants to stop risking their lives and money by fleeing to Europe “for nothing”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was rather skeptical, saying: “It is a breakthrough if it becomes reality”, as reported by the BBC. The deal must be reached by every country that is part of the bloc, and some EU leaders have already rejected the idea of taking Syrians from Turkey for resettlement.

The BBC reported that Hungary’s anti-migration PM Viktor Orban said he would veto any resettlement agreement.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey had taken a major decision that could dramatically change the game since it has the potential to prevent human smugglers by discouraging illegal migration. He also said the agreement would help people come to Europe through “encouraging” legal migration.

On the other hand, Vicent Cochetel, head of the UN’s Refugee Agency, said migrants would find other ways to flee to Europe as long as the complex conflict was not solved. He described the idea of people not trying to leave as a myth and suggested any mass expulsion of migrants was inconsistent with European law.

Amnesty International says the deal is full of flaws

Iverna McGowan, director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office, said that EU and Turkish leaders wanted to carry out a “horse trading” by ignoring the rights and dignity of people who are suffering. The organization defends the migrant’s right to seek asylum.

The EU believes it can cover the legal questions for the return of foreigners if it declares Turkey a “safe third country”, a concept that Amnesty strongly objects. Bulgaria is the only EU member that has ever done this.

Another aspect that could raise more legal questions is that Turkey is not a full member of the Geneva Convention.

Source: BBC