ISTANBUL NIZIP, Turkey (AFP) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border on Saturday (April 23), kicking off a high-stakes visit aimed at boosting a month-old migrant deal plagued by moral and legal concerns.
Merkel, joined by European Council head Donald Tusk and European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, headed to the Nizip 2 camp near Gaziantep after touching down in the country's south-east.
"Welcome to Turkey, the world's largest refugee hosting country," read a huge banner hanging over the entrance to the camp, which hosts some 5,000 people, including 1,900 children, in row upon row of white and beige prefabricated houses.
The aim of the visit is to promote the six-billion-euro (S$4.6 billion) deal to return migrants arriving on Greek shores to Turkey, which has come under fire from rights groups, the UN refugee agency and some EU leaders.
The European leaders are keen to show how funds are helping Turkey improve conditions for the 2.7 million refugees the country is hosting - though critics have pointed out the majority live in poverty far from the official camps.
Security for the visit was high: the delegation arrived at the camp on a coach with snipers on the roof. Police had earlier arrested six people suspected of links to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria group accused of plotting an attack.
Merkel met some of the camp's younger residents as she inaugurated an EU-funded child protection centre, bending to praise the drawings of several children armed with colouring pencils in a brightly-decorated classroom, before receiving presents and kisses from other youngsters.
Ties between Germany and Turkey are strained following President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's warning that the deal to curb the migrant flow to Europe would fall through if the EU did not keep up its end of the bargain by allowing visa-free travel for Turkish citizens.
The bloc promised to present a visa recommendation on May 4 if Ankara complies with its side of the accord, but there has been growing unease in Europe over fears that security concerns are being fudged to fast-track Turkey's application.
US President Barack Obama on Saturday hailed Merkel's "courageous" leadership in handling the Syrian refugee crisis.
But Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the EU had "sold out to Turkey" and the consequences were "impossible to predict", adding: "The security of the European Union cannot be in the hands of a power outside the EU."
The success of the deal, which has sharply reduced the number of people crossing from Turkey to Greece, was also called into question, with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) saying the numbers were "once again ticking up".
Merkel had said the Turkey visit was a chance to take stock of the implementation of the migrant deal and discuss the next steps, as well as evaluate conditions on the ground for those who have fled the devastating five-year war in Syria.
Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch's acting deputy director for Europe, said that instead of "touring a sanitized refugee camp", the delegation "should go to the detention centre for people who were abusively deported from Greece".
"We have schools and hospitals, life is good here," Mohamed Tomos, 49, who fled Damascus with his wife and four children and now lives with them in Nizip 2, told AFP.
"But we want to know what our future holds. If the war ended today, tomorrow I would go to Syria," he said.
The leaders will wind up the visit with a joint press conference with Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Many in Europe will be watching closely to see if the delegation takes a stand against the deterioration of rights.
Tusk set the tone for a confrontational visit on Friday, when he insisted "our freedoms, including freedom of expression, will not be subject to any political bargaining. This message must be heard by President Erdogan." His comments came as Turkish scholars and journalists, who have criticised the state's policies on Kurds and Syria, stood trial in Istanbul accused of betraying the state.
The cases have sounded alarm bells over the growing restrictions on free speech under Erdogan and increased pressure on Merkel to show more spine after allowing a German comedian to be prosecuted for a crude poem about the Turkish leader.
She was taunted Friday by one of the reporters on trial, Can Dundar, editor in chief of an opposition daily, who wrote an open letter saying Germany was "on the wrong side" and asking: "Will you again pretend there is no repression here?"