EU summit set to close the Balkan route to migrants

A challenge to Serbia-Croatia relations: Refugees at the Berkasavo border crossing, October 2015. [Trocaire/Flickr]

European Union leaders today (7 March) will back closing down the Balkans route used by most migrants to reach Europe, diplomats said, after at least 25 more people drowned trying to cross the Aegean Sea en route to Greece.

The declaration drafted by EU ambassadors yesterday night will be announced at a summit in Brussels today, set to also be attended by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

In preparation for the summit, Davutoğlu met late yesterday (6 March) with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, which holds the current rotating EU presidency.

The EU-Turkey summit will be held over lunch. After that EU leaders are to meet by themselves.

The bloc’s 28 leaders will ask Davutoğlu’s government to accept “large-scale” deportations of economic migrants from Greece, the main entry point to Europe, and do more to implement a November deal to slow the flow of people into the bloc.

EU and Turkey agree on €3 billion refugee deal

The leaders of the 28 EU member states, and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davuto?lu, agreed on Sunday (29 November) on a deal to stem the flow of refugees to Europe, coupled with an unfreezing of accession negotiations, and an initial €3 billion assistance package.

Greece has seen non-EU Macedonia and EU countries on the western Balkans route virtually shut their borders in a domino effect, trapping Syrian and other asylum seekers desperate to head north to wealthy Germany and Scandinavia.

An EU diplomat told journalists that European leaders would declare Monday they will “close the Balkans route in the coming days,” ending the “wave-through approach” to migrants that has caused chaos and tension in Europe.

Another diplomat confirmed that the language contained in an earlier draft declaration remained: “Irregular flows of migrants along the western Balkans route are coming to an end.”

The diplomat cautioned that delegations were still looking at the draft, as is always the case before a summit.

Help for Greece

On Friday (5 March), Brussels unveiled a plan to restore the full functioning of Europe’s cherished passport-free Schengen zone  by the end of the year after a series of border closures.

Commission plans last-gasp attempt to save Schengen

The European Union will unveil on Friday (4 March) a “roadmap” to restore by November the Schengen passport-free travel area, which is nearing collapse because of the migration crisis, sources said.

It was timed with calls for not only better cooperation from Turkey, but also the creation of an EU coastguard force by the summer, and help for Greece to strengthen its external border.

EU leaders are set to stand by Greece after having last week promised €700 million in emergency aid for the country and other states to help them manage the influx at their borders.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Sunday demanded the “urgent” relocation of thousands of refugees to other member states.

The bloc adopted a scheme last September to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy, but fewer than 700 people have actually been moved.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president and summit host, said in his invitation letter that success depended largely on securing Turkey’s agreement for the “large-scale” readmission from Greece of economic migrants who do not qualify as refugees.

Syrians, who top the influx of people into Europe, are considered genuine refugees requiring admission under international law.

Davutoğlu told reporters at Istanbul airport before leaving for Brussels that Turkey had taken “important steps” to fulfill its part of the stalled November deal.

He said there had been a drop in numbers, but “not a dramatic decline” because of the ongoing civil war in neighbouring Syria.

Despite progress, the EU said too many people were still heading from Turkey to Greece, with nearly 2,000 arriving daily in February.

The Financial Times reported on Sunday that Brussels had drafted a proposal to centralise the system for processing asylum applications, removing the current rule that requires asylum seekers to lodge their claim in the first EU country they arrive in.

The proposal is part of a radical overhaul of its refugee policy to be announced at a summit on 17 March.

25 migrants drown

Just ahead of the Brussels meeting, at least 25 migrants, including ten children, died after their wooden boat capsized trying to reach Greece, the Turkish coastguard said. Fifteen people were rescued off the Turkish coastal town of Didim Sunday.

Turkey is the launch pad for most of the more than one million refugees and migrants who have come to the continent since early 2015.

Davutoğlu said he would discuss with his EU counterparts efforts to start within weeks building schools and hospitals for refugees with the three billion euros pledged by Europe under the November deal.

Outspoken Czech President Milos Zeman said the EU should not give Turkey the funds because it was “neither ready nor capable” of helping migrants. “It’s only wasted money,” Zeman told TV Prima.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said meanwhile the alliance was broadening its new mission in the Aegean Sea to stop migrant smugglers while working more closely with the EU border agency Frontex.

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced Sunday that the Royal Navy was sending vessels to join ships from Canada, Germany, Greece and Turkey already deployed.

The International Organization for Migration said before Sunday’s deaths that a total of 418 people had died or gone missing already in 2016, most while attempting to reach Greece from Turkey aboard unseaworthy boats.

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