EU strikes deal to return refugees to Turkey

Migrants' tents at Piraeus port near Athens yesterday. Under the plan, the EU would take in one Syrian refugee from Turkish soil in exchange for every Syrian re-admitted to Turkey from Greece.
Migrants' tents at Piraeus port near Athens yesterday. Under the plan, the EU would take in one Syrian refugee from Turkish soil in exchange for every Syrian re-admitted to Turkey from Greece. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Plan to send back migrants arriving in Greece from tomorrow comes at heavy cost for bloc

BRUSSELS • European Union (EU) leaders have approved a controversial deal with Turkey to curb the huge flow of asylum seekers to Europe, with all migrants arriving in Greece from tomorrow onwards Sunto be sent back to Turkey.

Summit chairman Donald Tusk confirmed yesterday the 28 EU leaders have given the green light to the deal negotiated with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, in a bid to end an unprecedented crisis dividing the continent.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka also wrote on Twitter: ''Deal with Turkey approved.

''All illegal migrants who reach Greece from Turkey as of March 20 will be returned!''

More than 1.2 million migrants have come toreached Europe since last January 2015in the continent's biggest migration crisis since World War II.

Around 4,000 have drowned while trying to cross the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece.

Yesterday, Ankara officials said the Turkish Coast Guard intercepted some 3,000 migrants who were trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos.

The deal with Turkey comes at a heavy cost for Europe, with many members of the bloc expressing misgivings about the legality of the deal and 'sTurkey's human rights record. Turkey has demanded an acceleration of its long-stalled bid for EU membership, the doubling of refugee aid to €6 billion (S$9.2 billion) and visa-free travel in return for taking back all new irregular migrants going to Greece, the main entry point to Europe.

But in a sign of the tensions that remain between Ankara and Brussels, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blasted several EU states for taking only a ''handful of refugees'', in contrast to the nearly three million whom Turkey has admitted, most of them fleeing the Syrian war.

He also accused the Europeans of supporting the Kurdistan Workers' Party, days after a bombing in Ankara claimed by Kurdish rebels allegedly linked to the group.

Critics have said the mass expulsion planned under the EU-Turkey deal could infringe international law on the treatment of asylum seekers. Under the terms of the plan, the EU would take in one Syrian refugee from Turkish soil in exchange for every Syrian re-admitted to Turkey from Greece.

The move is meant to discourage them from risking their lives in often rickety and overcrowded boats operated by smugglers.

EU sources said last-minute sticking points were cleared up over the deal's legality, Turkey's EU membership bid, the date for launching the agreement and the plan to double the amount of aid to Turkey.

Another major hurdle that was overcome was opposition from Cyprus, rooted in long-standing tensions with Turkey over Ankara's refusal to recognise its government on the divided island.

Many EU states have expressed concerns about Ankara's human rights record, including its treatment of the Kurds and a crackdown on critics of the government.

The United Nations and human rights groups fear the deal could violate international law that forbids the mass deportation of refugees.

The crisis has left Europe increasingly divided, with fears that its passport-free zone could collapse as states reintroduce border controls and concerns over the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment.

The deal also envisages major aid for Greece, where tens of thousands of refugees are trapped in dire conditions after Balkan countries shut their borders to stop them heading north to Germany and Scandinavia. The agreement does not, however, affect the more than 46,000 refugees and migrants already in Greece.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline 'EU strikes deal to return refugees to Turkey'. Print Edition | Subscribe