Geneva convention, Turkey visa demands trouble EU states
EU states are pushing to designate Turkey as a safe country to return unwanted migrants from Europe despite Ankara's patchy application of the Geneva convention. Some countries also question allowing visa-free travel to 75 million Turks.
The safe-country move is being driven by a provisional deal between EU states and Turkey earlier this week as well as intense political pressure from Berlin.
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Speaking to reporters in Brussels on Wednesday (10 March), EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said it was the EU's "duty" to designate Turkey as a safe third country.
"It is a European position, but it has to be elaborated more in the days to come," he said.
Months of internal wrangling among EU leaders on how to best stop the flows from Turkey to Greece has led to internal border closures and a rapid rise of far-right groups.
Hopes are now hinging that the latest plan with Turkey will convince would-be asylum seekers not to seek out the help of smugglers to reach the EU.
Any Syrian that uses a smuggler to reach a Greek island will be returned to Turkey. Back in Turkey, the Syrian will be knocked to the bottom of a list of people who want to resettle to an EU state.
"I think it's a perfect system," said Theo Francken, Belgium's right-wing state secretary for migration.
No visas for Turks
Visa restrictions will also be lifted for some 75 million Turks in June in exchange once Ankara meets 72 EU commission benchmarks. It has so far met 35.
The EU executive, for its part, says it won't bend standards to meet the new visa liberalisation deadline but remains convinced the target can be met.
Strong resistance to the mov is already emerging from chancellor Angela Merkel’s CSU sister party. Grumblings are also surfacing in France with presidential contender Nicolas Sarkozy voicing objections.
"It is highly questionable that Turkey, which puts a newspaper critical of the government under its own control, presents a wish-list three days later and is rewarded by discussions about earlier visa liberalisation," said Austrian interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner.
The June date coincides with the launch of an EU readmission agreement with Turkey to include non-Turkish nationals.
The EU-Turkey readmission pact, launched in October 2014, is currently for Turkish nationals only. Although initially foreseen for 2017, this will change in June, to include third-country nationals like Syrians.
The Geneva test
Meanwhile, interior ministers met in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss how to get the new Turkey plan up and running despite the legal and political hurdles.
Among the biggest issues are ensuring Turkey complies with Geneva convention rules for refugees as well as international standards on asylum.
Refugees under the convention are supposed to be guaranteed full access to jobs, education, and safety.
"The Geneva convention is the Gospel of our relations with all countries," said Avramopoulos.
But Turkey's "geographical limitation" in the convention means only European nationals can be granted full refugee status.
Rights group have also documented cases where Turkey sent people back to war zones.
Amnesty International last November said around 80 Syrians in the Turkish city of Erzurum were kicked out.
The restrictions and documented abuse have thrown a legal spanner into the EU plan.
EU officials, however, remain convinced they can work around them ahead of next week's EU summit.
Dutch interior minister Klaas Dijkhoff, speaking on behalf of the EU rotating presidency, said Turkey "already qualifies".
"A lot of these things, Turkey is already on board and they are already doing it," he said.
Previous proposals largely hinged EU hopes on getting a stalled relocation scheme up and running.
Launched last September, the scheme was supposed to disperse 160,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece to other EU states over a two-year period.
But there are few takers with only just over 880 relocated to date. Avramopoulos said the new target is to relocate 6,000 a month.
"If relocation does not work, the whole system will collapse."