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6th Jun 2020

EU leaders to press Turkey on migrant returns

  • More than 150,000 children born to Syrian refugees inside Turkey since the Syria war began (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

EU leaders are meeting Turkey's prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Brussels on Monday (7 March) in an effort to stop migratory flows to Greece and through the Western Balkans.

The EU-Turkey summit follows renewed efforts to crack down on bogus asylum applicants, filter out Syrian nationals with legitimate claims to international protection, and send others like Moroccans and Pakistanis back to Turkey.

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  • Central and Western Europe keen to fence off problem inside Greece and Turkey (Photo: Freedom House)

"This will mean an end to the so-called wave-through policy of migrants," said EU council chief Donald Tusk in a letter addressed to the heads of state.

The route is the main entry point for migrants, with 880,000 entering in 2015 alone and 128,000 in the first two months of this year, he said.

But EU leaders, in their draft statement, seen by EUobserver, are preparing to announce that: "Irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkans route are coming to an end; this route is now closed."

Tusk, who met Davutoglu in Ankara last week, said both had agreed "to reduce the flow through large-scale and rapid return from Greece of all migrants not in need of international protection."

The two are meeting again on Monday morning ahead of the summit along with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and EU parliament chief Martin Schulz.

Zaman newspaper

The meetings come amid a crackdown on leading Turkish newspaper Zaman, souring the atmosphere.

They also come amid a burgeoning humanitarian crisis on the border between Greece and Macedonia, where over 12,000 people, including women and children, have become stranded.

Fears are mounting the blockade will prise open other routes, possibly through neighboring state Albania.

An average of 2,000 people a day continue to leave Turkey for the Greek islands. But with the Balkan borders sealed off, an economically crippled Greece is facing a humanitarian disaster as more people become trapped.

Greek prime miniser Alexis Tsipras has urged EU states to start relocating the refugees to relieve the pressure.

"The immediate start of a reliable procedure to relocate refugees from our country to other EU states is an absolute emergency," he said on Sunday.

Last week, the EU commission announced a €700 million emergency aid package to help Greece manage the crisis.

But rights group Amnesty International is accusing EU leaders of shirking their responsibilities by forcing people back to Turkey.

“Many refugees still live in terrible conditions, some have been deported back to Syria and security forces have even shot at Syrians trying to cross the border,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia.

Stalled EU-Turkey action plan

EU leaders have for months insisted on getting Turkey to take back people in exchange for a €3 billion deal made in November.

Progress is slow with only €95 million of the total having so far been earmarked for projects intended to improve the lives of some 2.7 million Syrians in Turkey, 151,000 of which are babies that have been born in the camps since the start of the Syrian war.

The deal is also tied to lifting visa restrictions to some 75 million Turkish nationals before the end of the year and renewing talks on joining the EU.

But with Turkey shutting down a major Instanbul-based newspaper last Friday, the EU is under increased pressure to defend press freedoms as part of Ankara's prospects to one day join the bloc.

Meanwhile, Nato warships in the Aegean sea dividing Turkey and Greece, are now conducting joint-operations with the EU's border agency Frontex.

"The decision of Nato to assist in the conduct of reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of illegal crossings in the Aegean Sea is an important contribution," said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos in a joint-statement on Sunday.

The plan is to get Nato to return to Turkey non-Syrians apprehended in international waters.

But Turkey says that if Nato vessels are forced to directly rescue people in Greek territorial waters, then they must take them to Greece instead.

“Nato situation is clear. We accept people rescued only from international or Turkish waters,” a senior Turkish official told EUobserver.

More returns to Turkey

Turkey has so far accepted over 360 returns from Greece, with a total of around 865 expected before Monday's summit.

But the figure is a drop in the bucket in terms of return demands made by Greece to Turkey.

Earlier this year, Matthias Ruete, who heads the commission's migration and home affairs directorate, said Greece had filed some 12,000 readmissions to Turkey.

Turkey accepted 6,000 of those but only 50 actually returned as of late January, he noted.

Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel had earlier floated the idea of a resettling up to 300,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey.

But the proposal appears to have little traction among most EU leaders and will not likely be a key discussion point at Monday's summit with Turkey.

Instead, Austria is now telling Germany to put a cap on the number of refugees it will accept annually.

"As long as Germany does not say that, it is clear what will happen. The refugees will continue to believe that they will be waved through," said Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann.

Press crackdown could sour EU-Turkey summit

An Istanbul court ordered the takeover of the management of opposition daily Zaman. The EU is urged to react, three days ahead of Monday's migration talks.

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