EU, Turkey strike deal to send back migrants

Tukish Prime Minister Ahmet Dvutoglu (L) and European Council President Donald Tusk (C) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (R) give a media conference at an EU-Turkey summit in Brussels, EU and Turkey have agreed on a plan to tackle migration flows. (Photo by Jonathan Raa / Pacific Press)

Brussels (AFP) – EU leaders and Turkey’s prime minister approved a controversial deal to curb the huge flow of asylum seekers to Europe, with all migrants arriving in Greece from Sunday to be sent back.

Friday’s deal makes Turkey Europe’s bulwark against its biggest migration crisis since World War II, but comes at a heavy price and amid criticism from rights groups.

“Now unanimous agreement between all EU HoSG (Heads of State or Government) and Turkey’s PM on EU-Turkey Statement,” EU president Tusk tweeted after talks in Brussels with Ahmet Davutoglu.

Davutoglu smiled and waved on his way into a final meeting with his counterparts to shake hands on the hard-won deal.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka confirmed separately the plans for migrants arriving from Sunday on the Greek islands.

“Deal with Turkey approved. All illegal migrants who reach Greece from Turkey as of March 20 will be returned!” Sobotka wrote on Twitter.

More than 1.2 million migrants have come to Europe since January 2015, and around 4,000 drowned last year while trying trying to reach Europe by sea.

Turkey won an acceleration of its long-stalled bid for EU membership, the doubling of refugee aid to six billion euros ($6.8 billion) and visa-free travel by June.

– ‘Dancing in a minefield’ –

In return Turkey agreed to take back all new irregular migrants coming to Greece, the main entry point to Europe.

Under the terms of the plan, the EU would take in one Syrian refugee from Turkish soil in exchange for every Syrian readmitted to Turkey from Greece. The move is meant to discourage them from risking their lives in often rickety and overcrowded boats operated by smugglers.

The deal still faces doubts about how to implement such a huge scheme, not least due to the still often-tense relations between Ankara and Brussels.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blasted several EU states for taking only a “handful of refugees” in contrast to the nearly three million Turkey has admitted, most of them fleeing the Syrian war.

Erdogan also accused the Europeans of supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) days after a bombing in Ankara claimed by Kurdish rebels allegedly linked to the group.

“European countries are paying no attention, as if they are dancing in a minefield,” he said.

Critics have said the mass expulsion planned under the EU-Turkey deal could infringe international law on the treatment of asylum seekers.

EU officials insisted the deal would be stressed repeatedly each application would be treated individually, with full rights of appeal and proper oversight.

Turkish officials will be sent to the Greek islands as well as UNHCR officials to oversee the scheme.

– Sticking points –

One major hurdle that was overcome was opposition from Cyprus, rooted in long-standing tensions with Turkey over Ankara’s refusal to recognise its government on the divided island.

But many European Union states have expressed concerns about Ankara’s human rights record, including its treatment of the Kurds and a crackdown on critics of the government.

The United Nations and rights groups fear the deal could violate international law that forbids the mass deportation of refugees.

Amnesty International set up a sign outside the summit venue: “Don’t trade refugees”.

The crisis has left Europe increasingly divided, with fears that its Schengen passport-free zone could collapse as states reintroduce border controls and concerns over the rise of populism and anti-immigrant sentiment.

The deal also envisages major aid for Greece, where tens of thousands of refugees are trapped in dire conditions after Balkan countries shut their borders to stop them heading north to richer Germany and Scandinavia.

The agreement does not however affect the more than 46,000 refugees and migrants already in Greece.

Greek Interior Minister Panagiotis Kouroumblis described the overwhelmed border town of Idomeni where many of the migrants are camped out as a “modern-day Dachau”.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was also hosting a meeting with Merkel and several other EU leaders on how to tackle migration flows from lawless Libya, which appeared to be increasing again.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned in a letter to European foreign ministers that there are more than 450,000 internally displaced persons and refugees in Libya who could decide to flee to Europe.