Thursday 29 September 2016

EU leaders push on with contested Turkey migrant plan

Published 17/03/2016 | 11:41

Children run on railway tracks at the northern Greek border point of Idomeni (AP)
Children run on railway tracks at the northern Greek border point of Idomeni (AP)

EU leaders are pushing ahead with contested plans to send tens of thousands of migrants back to Turkey amid deep divisions over how to manage Europe's biggest refugee emergency in decades.

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With European unity fraying in the face of more than one million migrant arrivals over the last year, Turkey - the source of most refugees heading across the sea to Greece - is seen as the key partner to contain the influx.

The UN refugee agency, however, has strong reservations about asylum standards in Turkey and rights groups are concerned over Ankara's crackdown on the media and its increasingly bloody conflict with Kurdish rebels.

But the EU feels it has no better option.

"How are you going to help Greece without having an agreement with Turkey to handle the issue? Do you really want to condemn Greece to become a refugee camp for the rest of Europe?" EU Commission vice president Frans Timmermans said ahead of the two-day summit in Brussels.

Unnerved by the hundreds of thousands of people flooding into Europe, Austria and other northern nations tightened border controls, creating a domino effect throughout the Balkans. Macedonia, just north of Greece, has all but locked its gates.

Greece, which has a vast sea border, cannot do that. So the moves have left nearly 46,000 people stuck in Greece, including some 14,000 camped out in the border town of Idomeni who are desperately hoping to move on towards Germany or Scandinavia.

Some Idomeni refugees waded through a raging stream to cross into Macedonia this week, only to be sent back bloody and bruised.

Under the EU agreement, which could be sealed with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Friday, Turkey would stop migrants from leaving and take back from Greece all "new arrivals" not eligible for asylum.

For every irregular migrant returned to Turkey, EU countries would take in one Syrian refugee from Turkey, up to a total of 72,000, all resettled in a process supervised by the UNHCR.

In exchange, the EU could provide Turkey with up to six billion euro (£4.75bn) to help the 2.7 million Syrian refugees there, and speed up EU membership talks and ease visa rules for Turkish citizens.

Rights groups fear the deal is a fig-leaf to hide the deportation of migrants, even though the EU insists that each person can make a case in an interview and has the right to appeal.

Changes made to the draft deal since it was made public on March 7 "do little to hide Europe's shameful planned mass return of refugees to Turkey", Amnesty International said Wednesday.

Ahead of the summit, EU Council President Donald Tusk said "I am cautiously optimistic, but frankly more cautious than optimistic" about the chances for success.

He said any deal must satisfy all EU member countries, "big or small".

Press Association

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