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EU reaches deal with Turkey to stop migrant influx

Migrants arriving in Greece from Sunday will be sent back to Turkey in bid to defuse crisis as EU members bicker over responsibility.
A child eats as other migrants sit around a fire in a railway repairs hangar at Idomeni on the Greece-Macedonia border on March 18, 2016. Vadim Ghirda / AP Photo
A child eats as other migrants sit around a fire in a railway repairs hangar at Idomeni on the Greece-Macedonia border on March 18, 2016. Vadim Ghirda / AP Photo

BRUSSELS // The European Union and Turkey reached a deal on Friday to ease the migrant crisis and give Ankara concessions on better EU relations.

The agreement signed between the 28 EU leaders and Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu will allow thousands of migrants to be sent back to Turkey from Sunday, while Ankara will see fast-track procedures to get billions in aid to deal with refugees on its territory, visa concessions for Turks to travel in Europe and a re-energising of its EU membership bid.

“The deal with Turkey approved. All illegal migrants who reach Greece from Turkey starting March 20 will be returned,” Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka tweeted.

Mr Davutoglu said Turkey’s prime concern was the fate of almost 3 million Syrian refugees on its territory. At the same time, he was looking for unprecedented concessions to bring the EU’s eastern neighbour closer to the bloc.

For the EU, the deal brought some closure to months of bitter infighting over how to deal with the migrant crisis, which would essentially see Europe outsource its refugee emergency to Turkey.

“For Turkey, the refugee issue is not an issue of bargaining, but values,” Mr Davutoglu has aid earlier, staking out the same moral ground that the EU has claimed throughout the crisis.

With more than one million migrants arriving in Europe over the past year, EU leaders were desperate to clinch a deal with Turkey and heal deep rifts within the bloc, while relieving the pressure on Greece, which has borne the brunt of arrivals.

The agreement would have clear commitments that the rights of legitimate refugees would be respected and treated according to international and EU law. Within a week, Turkish and EU officials would assess joint projects to help Syrian refugees in Turkey, after complaints that promised aid of €3 billion (Dh12.4bn) was too slow in coming.

Turkey would also be guaranteed that EU accession talks on budgetary issues could start before the summer.

In the Idomeni camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, Muhammad Hassan, a Syrian from the devastated city of Aleppo, was looking for relief from the talks in Brussels and wondered why a continent of 500 million people could not deal with the situation.

“Europe have only one million” migrants, Mr Hassan said. “How come it’s difficult?” he asked, comparing the EU to Lebanon, a nation of 5.9 million. “If a small country takes 3 million refugees and didn’t talk, how about Europe? It’s not difficult.”

The conditions in Greece and the Idomeni camp were called intolerable by the Greek government on Friday. Interior minister Panagiotis Kouroumplis visited the crowded tent city and compared it to a Nazi concentration camp. He said the situation was a result of closed borders by countries that refused to accept refugees.

More than 46,000 people are trapped in Greece, after Austria and a series of Balkan countries stopped letting through refugees who reach Greece from Turkey and want to go to Europe’s prosperous heartland. Greece wants refugees to move from Idomeni to organised shelters.

The EU-Turkey plan would be operational despite concerns about Turkey’s asylum system and human-rights abuses. The EU will pay to send new migrants arriving in Greece who do not qualify for asylum back to Turkey. For every Syrian returned, the EU would accept one Syrian refugee, for a target figure of 72,000 people to be distributed among European states.

Apart from easing visa restrictions, the EU will also offer Turkey – home to 2.7 million Syrian refugees – up to €6bn in aid, and faster EU membership talks.

* Associated Press

Updated: March 19, 2016 04:00 AM

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