Migrant returns start Sunday, after EU and Turkey strike refugee swap deal

Syrian and Afghan refugees fall into the sea after their dinghy deflated before

All migrants and refugees arriving in Greece from this Sunday (20 March) will be returned to Turkey, under a controversial agreement hammered out over two days between the EU and Ankara at a summit in Brussels.

The deal is aimed at stemming the largest influx of refugees and migrants since World War II on the continent, which has partly overwhelmed Greece and led to the resurrection of internal European borders within the Schengen zone.

After 24-hours of negotiations, the deal was struck just after 5pm between the 28-member bloc and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu – despite concerns from NGOs at the legality of the deal, and private misgivings among EU leaders at the state of Turkey’s democracy, human rights record and freedom of the press.

In the agreement brokered by EU Council President Donald Tusk, Turkey receives visa-free travel to the EU by June, a speeding-up of its long-stalled EU accession negotiations, and a doubling of its refugee aid from the EU to six billion euros, with speedier disimbursment of the initial 3 billion euros agreed last year.

In return, Ankara has agreed to take back all irregular migrants who arrive in Greece – the main point of entry to Europe, although the deal acknowledges the increasing problem of the route from Libya into the southern Meditarranean.

Europe received some 1.2 million migrants in 2015, whilst Turkey now hosts nearly three million. Some 4,000 have drowned in the Meditarranean and Aegean Seas.

Wrap-up: EU leaders reach deal with Turkey

The EU summit last week (7 March) failed to reach a deal with Turkey to stem the unprecedented migrant crisis. Today and tomorrow (17-18 March), EU leaders were expected to talk about the economy and the climate but these have been pushed to the margins, as the meeting will be dominated by the refugee crisis.

The deal was immediately condemned by Amnesty International as a “historic blow to human rights.”

But David Cameron, the British prime minister, speaking at a closing press conference, said it would “bust the business model of the people smugglers.”

Sunday March 20 is set in the document as the start of the implementation of the deal – in a bid to get enough translators, and asylum processors to Greece whilst not encouraging a final flood of migrants before the deal is implemented.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said: “This weekend will start a very difficult operation.”

EU officials insisted the deal would treat each application individually, with full rights of appeal and proper oversight.

Turkish officials will be sent to the Greek islands as well as UNHCR officials to oversee the scheme.

One 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.

But many European Union 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 agreement does not however affect the more than 46,000 refugees and migrants already in Greece.

Greek Interior Minister Panagiotis Kouroumblis described the overwhelmed border town of Idomeni where many of the migrants are camped out as a “modern-day Dachau”.

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During the summit, Cameron hosted a separate with Merkel and several other EU leaders on how to tackle migration flows from lawless Libya, which appeared to be increasing again.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned in a letter to European foreign ministers that there are more than 450,000 internally displaced persons and refugees in Libya who could decide to flee to Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also sounded cautious at her press conference, warning “I have no illusions that we agreed today will come with setbacks”.

Rajoy added, “I believe this is a reasonable solution… the best of the solutions”.

“Maybe there are better solutions, but on this complex issue, the 28 member states and Turkey are not capable of doing it”

And he insisted that, “Spain has insisted on protecting international law”

The end of the summit was overshadowed by the news that, barely four kilometres away, Europe’s most wanted fugitive, Salah Abdeslam, had been shot and apprehended by Belgian police for alleged role in November’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

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The most-wanted fugitive from November’s Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, was wounded and caught in a shootout in Brussels on Friday (18 March), according to the Belgian minister for asylum and immigration.

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Key points

  • “All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey.”
  • This includes both refugees fleeing conflict and persecution as well as economic migrants, and it applies irrespective of where the refugees originally come from.
  • The measure  will be a “temporary and extraordinary measure which is necessary to end the human suffering and restore public order”.
  • To meet international law, migrants will be “duly registered and any application for asylum will be processed individually by the Greek authorities”.
  • Those who do not, or whose applications are rejected, will be returned.
  • The UN refugee agency will help with the returns process, according to a clause inserted late on Thursday. All costs will be covered by the EU.
  • The EU will also “welcome Turkey’s commitment that migrants returned to Turkey will be protected in accordance with the international standards.”
  • For every Syrian refugee being returned to Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian refugee will be resettled from Turkey to the EU.
  • Women and children will be prioritised under “UN Vulnerability Criteria.” Priority will also be given to those who have not previously been deported from Greece.
  • The EU will use 18,000 spare places from an earlier resettlement scheme, and up to 54,000 places from a slow-moving plan to redistribute refugees in Greece and Italy around the EU.
  • When the numbers approach 72,000 the scheme will be “reviewed” — and if the numbers exceed 72,000 the scheme will be “discontinued”.
  • The EU agrees to accelerate plans to bring in visa-free travel for Turkish nationals to the Schengen passport-free zone by June, “provided that all benchmarks have been met”.
  • In practice it will be almost impossible for Turkey to fulfil the list of 72 requirements demanded by Brussels, especially on a shortened timeline.
  • The EU agrees to speed up the payment of three billion euros in aid for refugees in Turkey, under the terms of an earlier summit in November.
  • It also agrees to mobilise “up to a ceiling of an additional three billion euros up to the end of 2018” — but only once the initial three billion has been spent.
  • The EU and Turkey agreed to open a new “chapter” in Turkey’s long-stalled bid for membership of the EU – Chapter 33, on budgets – by July.
  • It said preparations for other chapters would continue “at an accelerated pace”.
  • But in a reference to Cyprus, which has long had tensions with Turkey, it said that would be “without prejudice to Member States’ positions in accordance with the existing rules.”
  • When the numbers approach 72,000 the scheme will be “reviewed” — and if the numbers exceed 72,000 the scheme will be “discontinued”.
  • The EU agrees to accelerate plans to bring in visa-free travel for Turkish nationals to the Schengen passport-free zone by June,

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy: “Main and more urgent goal is to avoid people risking their lives  to come to Europe.”“Spain has insisted on protecting international law”

He explained that, thanks to Spain, three changes where introduced to ensure EU and international law are respected, and all asylum requests are individually processed.

“I believe this is a reasonable solution… the best of the solutions".

“Maybe there are better solutions, but on this complex issue, the 28 member states and Turkey are not capable of doing it”

“Honestly, I believe this is the first time that we reach a solution that has overtones of being the definitive one”

He said that Spain is going to offer all the forces requested by Frontex and the EU asylum agency.“This weekend will start a very difficult operation.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel: "I have no illusions that what we agreed today will come with setbacks"
British Prime Minister David Cameron: "This will bust the business model of the people smugglers."

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