Turkey agrees to take back all illegal Syrian migrants arriving in Greece after midnight Sunday
Published 18/03/2016 | 19:07
The EU and Turkey have finally inked an accord on how to control the numbers of migrants arriving in the bloc through the Greek islands.
After three summits and months of legal wrangling and political horse-trading, Turkey has said it will take back all illegal Syrian migrants arriving in Greece after midnight Sunday.
In exchange, EU leaders offered Turkey money to support Syrian refugees on its territory, visa-free access to the bloc from July and the partial unblocking of Ankara’s stalled EU membership talks by June.
As part of the deal, the EU will take in one legally registered Syrian refugee for every illegal migrant Turkey takes back, up to a maximum of 72,000, and only for a limited time.
Once flows to the Greek islands are “substantially and sustainably reduced”, EU leaders said they would look at resettling more Syrian refugees directly from Turkey, but only on a voluntary basis.
Ireland will not take in any extra people as part of the deal, the Taoiseach confirmed yesterday, and will stick to a September 2015 pledge to rehouse 4000 people from within and outside the EU.
However, he said he would consider “what, if any” help Ireland could offer Greece in terms of personnel to process asylum seekers that have already arrived on its shores.
The EU has been intent on locking down its external borders since the flow of migrants to the bloc skyrocketed to 1.2 million last year - most of them fleeing the civil war in Syria and reaching the EU across the Aegean Sea from Turkey. The flows have barely abated, with more than 156,000 people arriving already this year.
“This agreement alone is not going to resolve that crisis,” Taoiseach Enda Kenny said. “It will not stop people leaving Syria and it will not prevent people from wanting to come to Europe in the first place, but it should help to manage and diminish the flow of asylum seekers more effectively, also more humanely and obviously more fairly.”
The deal, which was first outlined at an emergency summit on 7 March, was beset by legal, political and practical obstacles and looked to be in jeopardy until a breakthrough was reached on Friday afternoon.
The UN and other human rights organisations had criticised the first draft, saying that deporting migrants en masse back to Turkey would contravene international and EU law.
But EU leaders say they have circumvented legal challenges by treating asylum claims individually, offering the right of appeal to those whose claims are denied and refusing to turn away people in danger of persecution or death.
A second obstacle was Cyprus, which threatened to torpedo an accord over Turkey’s EU membership talks, but a solution was found that partially unblocks the talks while pushing more contentious issues further down the line.
The resulting deal assures Turkey of 6bn euros between now and 2018 to upgrade Syrian refugee camps, and hinges on Ankara making a raft of legal changes to bring it into line with EU human rights and democratic standards.
It also depends on Greece being able to process the estimated 43,000 people currently in the country, and the thousands still arriving on its islands each day.
UNICEF yesterday raised concerns about returning refugee and migrant children to what they called “an uncertain future in Turkey”.
Oxfam was also quick to condemn the deal, which it said “may amount to trading human beings for political concessions”.
Donald Tusk, who chairs EU summit meetings, said that the deal was only one part of a strategy that includes strengthening the EU’s external borders, keeping the Western Balkans' route closed and reopening internal border crossings in the EU’s 26-country passport-free zone.
“Some may think this agreement is a silver bullet, but reality is more complex,” Mr Tusk told reporters in Brussels after the two-day summit. "It is just one pillar of the European Union's comprehensive strategy and can work only if the other pillars are also implemented."
Technical work will continue over the weekend to ensure the deal can be rolled out after the Sunday cut-off date.