EU seeks deals in Africa and Middle East to slow migrant arrivals
The European Union has unveiled plans to seal agreements with African and Middle East countries in an effort to persuade refugees to stay close to home and to discourage people looking for jobs from heading to Europe.
The European Commission said that the agreements would target countries that migrants and refugees leave, travel through or stay in, often on their way to Europe.
The move is part of the EU's longer-term strategy to tackle the root causes of migration as the 28-nation bloc struggles to manage its biggest refugee emergency since the Second World War, with member states divided over what action to take.
EU politicians immediately expressed concerns that the deals would be another attempt to outsource the bloc's migrant woes, like the much-maligned migrant agreement with Turkey.
The commission said the new partnership "compacts" would combine funds to build border, asylum and counter-smuggling capacities, as well as develop infrastructure and promote investment. Development and trade incentives would also be offered.
"We propose to use a mix of positive and negative incentives to reward those third countries willing to cooperate effectively with us and to ensure that there are consequences for those who do not," European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said in Strasbourg, France.
The main countries concerned are conflict-torn Syria's neighbours Jordan and Lebanon, where around two million Syrian refugees are sheltering. Senegal, Mali, Niger and Nigeria along the key migrant paths through western Africa are also targeted, as is Libya - where most migrants leave the African coast by boat for Italy - and its northern neighbour Tunisia. Ethiopia, where more than 700,000 refugees are sheltering, is on the list too.
But some politicians fear the agreements, which would not be legally binding, might see money and incentives thrown at countries already overwhelmed by migrants.
Greens politicians Ska Keller said: "How can we tell Jordan, Turkey, other countries, to house more refugees if we're not ourselves able to house a few million?"
"To say today that we have a solution to our problem, that we are going to simply duplicate the deal with Turkey, and we're going to roll it out to all the other countries - sorry, that is not the way forward," said Guy Verhofstadt, head of the assembly's Liberal bloc.
Others wondered whether EU states will pledge more money when they are already reluctant to commit funds and resources to current migrant efforts.
The European Commission believes about eight billion euros (£6.2 billion) could be mobilised short term, and that an investment plan could raise up to 62 billion euros (£48.2 billion) if EU nations match the sums being offered from the bloc's budget.
The announcement came as Turkish Foreign Minister Mehmet Cavusoglu renewed a warning that its migrant deal with the EU would collapse if Turkish citizens are not granted visa-free travel in Europe.
"This is not a threat or blackmail," he said. "If Europe doesn't apply the visa-free travel, then we will be forced to suspend the agreement on the return of refugees."
The EU wants Turkey, which hosts three million refugees, to curb the flow of irregular migrants from its territory to Europe. In exchange, it has offered Turkey several incentives, including six billion euros (£4.6 billion) in refugee aid and fast-track EU membership talks.
Meanwhile, Sweden has launched a commission to analyse government agencies' response to last year's record influx of 163,000 asylum-seekers.
Interior Minister Anders Ygeman said the aim is to "learn from what happened" and improve the ability of authorities to deal with a similar situation.
After Germany, Sweden was the top destination for asylum-seekers entering Europe last year, with almost 80,000 arriving in October and November alone.
The government took measures to stem the flow in late 2015 and early 2016, including by introducing border checks designed to stop undocumented migrants from entering Sweden from Denmark and Germany.
Since then, new arrivals have dropped sharply.