EU reaches deal with Turkey to force back new asylum seekers
The European Union has reached an agreement with Turkey that it hopes will ease the migrant crisis that has roiled the Continent for the past year.
Under the deal struck Friday, asylum seekers who take clandestine routes to Greece from Turkey are to be sent back, a significant step in the bloc’s effort to deal with the migrant exodus. The leaders of the 28 nations in the bloc and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey approved the accord over strenuous objections from humanitarian groups, who warned that the deal violated international law on the treatment of refugees.
The plan, which will take effect on Sunday, faces many challenges. There are many alternative routes into Europe, and it is unclear how effective the Turkish and Greek authorities will be at rounding up migrants who use boats to cross the Aegean and sending them back to Turkey. Turkey is also in the midst of its own security crisis, raising questions about the country’s ability to implement the deal and cope with the huge numbers of migrants on its soil.
The deal is the latest effort by the European Union to come up with a joint solution to the mass migration that has been straining its resources and roiling its politics. The idea is that it will deter migrants from trying to make dangerous journeys into Europe and encourage a legal path to Europe by offering to resettle at least some Syrians among the nearly three million migrants already in Turkey.
The new policy underlines frustration at a decision last year by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to accept large numbers of people from war-torn countries like Syria and disperse them around Europe.
The deal calls for Turkey to receive about $6.6 billion in aid to help organizations look after the migrants there. Also promised are visa-free travel for its citizens in most of Europe by this summer if Turkey meets certain conditions, and the eventual resumption of negotiations with Turkey on membership in the European Union.
The European Union also will resettle one Syrian from a camp in Turkey in exchange for each Syrian who used an irregular route to reach Greece.
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The first exchanges could take place as soon as April 4, European Union officials said.
Tens of thousands of people have been living in squalid conditions in Greece on the border with Macedonia, which has denied entry to the migrants.
The deal reached Friday on returning migrants to Turkey applies only to new migrants who have arrived in Greece and excludes those already there. European Union officials said on Friday that migrants who arrive on Greek islands after midnight on Saturday would fall under the new rules.
The migrants currently in Greece could eventually be moved to other parts of the European Union if they qualify for asylum.
The accord with Turkey represents a moment of painful compromise for Europe. Turkey has taken an authoritarian turn under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Europe was forced to accept some Turkish demands to gain its cooperation in stopping the large numbers of people using the Aegean to reach Greece.
Confirmation of the deal came from Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, who oversees summit meetings. There was “unanimous agreement between” all leaders with the Turkish prime minister, Mr. Tusk wrote on his Twitter account.
More than a million migrants arrived on European shores last year, and there has been no sign of the pace letting up. Almost 155,000 people have arrived in Europe already this year as of Thursday, the vast majority of them in Greece, according to the International Organization for Migration, and the numbers could rise as the weather turns warmer.
Putting this huge and delicate operation into effect over the course of a single weekend will be difficult. European officials wanted to quickly put the measure in place to prevent a rush of migrants seeking to reach Greece before the deal takes effect.
European officials have struggled to develop a coherent response to the migrant crisis, and the new agreement is complicated by the fact that Greece currently lacks the infrastructure to ensure fair hearings for asylum seekers before they are sent back to Turkey, according to European officials.
“The weakest link in this agreement is Greece,” said Mujtaba Rahman, the director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. It “does not have the financial or administrative bandwidth to implement this agreement, so it will need substantial support from Europe — far more than is currently being talked about.”
The United Nations refugee agency is among the organizations to have issued stern warnings about the plans to return migrants to Turkey, and it took a cautious line on the deal. “We now need to see how this will be worked out in practice, in keeping with the safeguards set out in the agreement — many of which at present are not in place,” the agency said in a statement.
The agreement was welcomed by Ms. Merkel, who helped develop the plan at a time when much of the Continent and a substantial portion of her own country have turned against her policy of taking in almost unlimited numbers of migrants. But even she was cautious about its prospects.
“Let me be very clear: I am under no illusion whatsoever that what we agreed today will not meet with setbacks — there are after all enormous logistical challenges that we have to contend with,” Ms. Merkel said at a news conference.
One of the main goals of the deal was to dissuade migrants from attempting the Aegean crossing, Ms. Merkel said. “When you embark on this perilous journey, you’re not only risking life and limb, but you have very little prospects for success,” she said.
She emphasized that refugees arriving on Greek islands after Sunday “will not be simply returned” but will be subject to “a procedure that looks at each and every refugee individually,” though she acknowledged that this would be a big task requiring help from European officials.
Although the deal represents a meaningful step in the effort to bring the migrant crisis under control, it is unclear if migrants might look for other options, turning the agreement into a temporary fix.
“The bigger headache will be when the smugglers start rerouting migrants to Italy through Libya because you’ve got a failed state there so no real government to make a deal with,” said Guntram Wolff, the director of Bruegel, a research organization in Brussels.
The debate over how to deal with the migrant wave has divided Europe, and the search for an agreement gained new urgency this month after four countries — Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia — effectively shut down the route used by many migrants as they move on from Greece.
Most of the migrants hoped to reach Germany, but the closing of the so-called Western Balkan route left increasing numbers trapped because they could not leave Greece, had no desire to stay and could not or would not return home.
Passage into Macedonia was being limited to a small number of Syrians and Iraqis each day, while people from other countries, including Afghanistan, were being treated as economic migrants and therefore ineligible to apply for asylum.