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13th Apr 2024

EU to send smuggled Syrians back to Turkey

The EU will start returning all irregular migrants back to Turkey from the Greek islands, including smuggled Syrian nationals, under a plan hammered out with Turkey's prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu at a summit in Brussels.

"The prime minister [Davutoglu] confirmed to accept the rapid return of all migrants coming from Turkey to Greece that are not in need of international protection," EU Council president Donald Tusk told reporters in the early hours of Tuesday (8 March).

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  • German leader Merkel was architect of new EU-Turkey plan (Photo: Consillium)

Syrian refugees smuggled into Greece will be sent back to Turkey where they will have to apply for asylum.

For every one Syrian sent back to Turkey from the Greek islands, one Syrian from Turkey will be resettled to an EU state on a "one-to-one basis".

Details on how to implement the plans will be discussed at the next EU summit in Brussels on 17-18 March.

But two EU sources told this website it will be linked to a previous EU agreement to resettle 22,000 people to EU states.

Should all 22,000 be resettled, then another 54,000 could be added, they said.

Game changer

German chancellor Angela Merkel, who inspired the plan said that with it, "irregular migration will be turned into regular migration".

"The establishment of legal channels to Europe from Turkey and Greece and immediate humanitarian assistance will assist in managing the refugee crisis by respecting human rights and dignity of refugees," Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras said.

In the meantime, EU leaders also decided to end the "wave-through approach" of sending migrants to neighbouring countries.

"The irregular flow of migrants along the Western Balkan route have now come to an end," Tusk said.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, for his part, said the one-to-one principle agreed with Turkey was "a real game changer".

He noted the EU's asylum procedures law allows EU states to return people to a so-called "safe third country of origin".

But Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, Gauri van Gulik, described designating Turkey as a "safe third country" as absurd.

“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,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Syrians caught trying to cross using smugglers will be knocked to the bottom of a list for those wanting to be resettled to the EU from Turkey.

Turkey will also have to take back all irregular migrants apprehended in their waters.

"We made a bold decision by accepting all irregular, illegal migrants going from Turkey, irrespective of their origins," said Davutoglu.

But the deal is linked to conditions.

All visiting Turkish nationals will be granted free travel access to the EU's passport-free Schengen area by the end of June.

In addition, Ankara demanded to accelerate its membership talks, with the EU agreeing to open up five new chapters.

Free speech

The deal also includes the EU pumping another €3 billion, on top of a previous €3 billion, into humanitarian aid efforts for the some 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Davutoglu insisted all the money will go to Syrian refugees, noting that "not even a single euro will be spent on Turkish citizens."

The plan is to start financing relief efforts in the camps "in the coming days".

He also blamed, in part, Russian airstrikes in Syria for enflaming the refugee exodus to Turkey and Europe.

Davutoglu had suggested setting up safe zones in Syria but the idea was broadly dismissed by EU leaders.

Instead, discussions on how to support the unraveling Syrian ceasefire were held in a separate meeting in the margins of the summit between Davutoglu, Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel, UK prime minister David Cameron and French president Francois Hollande among others.

Davutoglu also dismissed notions his government's decision to close down Zaman, a leading newspaper in Istanbul, was politically motivated.

A court ordered last Friday the takover of the paper, which had taken a critical stand against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"Freedom of speech is our basic value, not only of the European Union, but of Turkey," said Davutoglu.

’Over there’

Commenting on the summit outcome, British PM David Cameron said the deal, “if implemented, break the smugglers’ business model and end the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe.”

The Dutch and Italian leaders mentioned the importance to them of EU values, including on free press.

The Polish PM Beata Szydlo said: “The refugee problem should be solved outside the borders of the European Union … today I think, we came closer and took a big step to solving the problem over there, on Turkish territory.”

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The UN has spoken out against blanket returns to Turkey after EU leaders earlier Tuesday agreed to a provisional plan to start clearing Greek islands of irregular migrants.

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