Turkey and the European Union clinched a landmark deal Friday aimed at stopping thousands of migrants from attempting to reach European shores.
After two days of negotiations in Brussels, the sides finally agreed to a plan that will effectively send any migrants who attempt to cross the Aegean Sea into Greece back to Turkey.
In return, Turkey will gain key concessions including an influx of money to help Syrian refugees within its borders, the reenergizing of talks on its EU membership and the relaxing of visa restrictions for Turkish nationals within the EU's passport-free zone.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu described it as a “historic day” that would not only prevent men, women and children from risking their lives to reach Europe by boat but also cemented the EU and Turkey's shared vision and destiny.
“We today realized that Turkey and the EU have the same destiny, the same challenges and the same future,” Davutoglu said.
European Council President Donald Tusk welcomed the deal but said it was not a “silver bullet.” It's part of a number of measures, he said, that are being introduced to stem the flow of people, the majority of whom are fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.
The agreement was quickly renounced by human rights groups, however, who say it will hurt migrants.
Here's a look at what the deal says, and the implications.
The deal states that all “new irregular migrants” who arrive in Greece beginning Sunday will be sent back to Turkey. This has been the most controversial aspect of the plan, and human rights groups and U.N. agencies have questioned the morality and legality of such a measure.
European Council President Donald Tusk said EU and international law would be strictly adhered to. There would also be no “collective expulsion” but migrants would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The EU will cover the cost of sending migrants back to Turkey if they do not qualify for asylum. It seems the EU is hoping this deal will deter people contemplating the journey more than anything, because Greece is currently poorly equipped to swiftly process scores of asylum applications.
“It will be a temporary and extraordinary measure which is necessary to end the human suffering and restore public order,” the EU-Turkey agreement states. Turkish officials will also be mobilized to Greek islands, and vice versa, to ensure the plans are enforced seamlessly.
One in, one out
For every Syrian who is returned to Turkey, the EU has agreed to resettle one Syrian refugee within Europe. The intention is for this trade to take place on the same day and migrants who have not previously entered, or attempted to enter, the EU will be given priority. Europe will take up to 72,000 people under this exchange system, but a telling line in the agreement says that if this plan does not successfully end the waves of irregular migration and the number of returns comes close to the target then “this mechanism will be reviewed.” The condition was written into the agreement amid concerns from some EU countries that the agreement could lead to an open-ended commitment.
One major concern voiced by human rights campaigners is that this policy will actually make life more dangerous, not less, for the thousands of migrants who have been arriving on Greek shores daily for months. They say some desperate people will find alternative, albeit more clandestine and potentially life-threatening, routes. Turkey, for its part, has pledged to stop new migrant routes from opening up as part of this arrangement.
Turkey presented a list of demands to EU leaders in return for its cooperation. Many European countries expressed concern over being held ransom to these wishes, but because more than one million refugees have entered Greece via Turkey since January 2015, Turkey has become a key ally to help Europe contain the migrant flow. One demand that EU leaders agreed to involves speeding up the visa liberalization process for Turkish citizens who wish to travel within the passport-free Schengen zone. These restrictions will be lifted by the end of June 2016 provided Turkey meets 72 benchmarks. Davutoglu said Friday that 37 of those benchmarks had already been completed and he was hopeful of being able to meet the rest of them.
The EU agreed to speed up the disbursement of
3 billion euros (about $3.5 billion) that was pledged to help the nearly three million Syrian refugees who are currently seeking sanctuary in Turkey. Complaints had been made that the aid was not arriving swiftly enough.
Turkey and the EU will also identify further joint projects to help the refugees.
When this pot of money is nearly used up, and provided the cash has been used appropriately, the EU will provide an additional 3 billion euros in funding to last until the end of 2018.
The most controversial of Turkey's demands centered on its desire to resume EU membership talks, which had become hopelessly stalled.
After much heated debate, the EU agreed that negotiations on one policy area would begin in coming months and discussions about other so-called “chapters” would continue at an accelerated pace.
This aspect of the deal was particularly controversial with Cyprus, already an EU member, because of a long-standing feud with Turkey, which refuses to recognize the island state.
Boyle is a special correspondent.