Turkey made a first step toward accepting to take back illegal immigrants who crossed into the EU from its territory, apparently in exchange of easing the visa requirement for its citizens visiting the border-free Schengen space.
Turkey and the European Commission initialled yesterday (21 June) a “readmission agreement”, according to which Turkey would take back illegal immigrants from third countries who have crossed into EU territory from its borders. The initialling is a first step before official signing. For years, Turkey has resisted EU pressure for concluding such an agreement.
Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström welcomed the initialling of the readmission agreement, adding that she was looking forward to its signing.
“This will also enable us to make progress in the perspective of visa liberalisation, as a clear sign to the Turkish population and authorities that the EU stands up to its commitment to improve the mobility of our citizens," she said.
Many illegal immigrants have been crossing the Greece-Turkey border in recent years, in particular in an area of around 20 kilometres near Orestiada and the Turkish city of Edirne, at the place where the river Evros (in Greek, Meriç in Turkish, Maritsa in Bulgarian) crosses the border. The flow of illegal immigrants has put additional pressure on cash-strapped Greece, pushing it close to expulsion from Schengen.
Following measures by Frontex, the EU's external border cooperation agency, the number of migrants crossing the Greek-Turkish border had reportedly decreased from 2,000 to 500 a week in recent months.
For several years now, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an has promised better cooperation to curb the flow of illegal migration, in exchange for Greece's help with easing visa rules for Turks.
Turkey is an EU candidate but its nationals are subject to visa requirements (see background). It remains unclear to what extent the Turkish government has used the migration issue as a tool to counter the reluctance of the Union to discuss visa-free travel for Turkish nationals.
Turkey in 2010 established a visa-free regime with countries such as Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia, with which the EU maintains strict visa requirements.
Ankara wants roadmap
The Turkish press quoted the Foreign Ministry in Ankara as saying that after the EU member states authorised the European Commission to conduct visa liberalisation talks with Turkey and the readmission agreement was initialled in Brussels, an action plan on visa exemption would be prepared by the Commission in the following period.
Before it would sign the readmission agreement, Turkey wants to see a “roadmap” leading to full lifting of the visa requirement for its nationals. According to the daily Hurriyet, Ankara’s assumption is that visa-free travel could be achieved by 2014-15. This is why Turkey would wait to see the content of the Commission “action plan”, before engaging further. The action plan is expected to be ready by autumn.
In the meantime, a visa liberalisation process is foreseen, allowing journalists, businesspeople, artists and athletes to get multiple entry visas valid from 2 to 5 years, instead of applying for each journey to the Schengen countries.
The readmission for third-country nationals will not be automatic from day one. A three-year transition period that would allow for the construction of modern refugee processing centres is foreseen.
EU national leaders must still approve the visa deal.
It also remains unclear how the readmission agreement would function vis-à-vis Cyprus, an EU member country seriously exposed to illegal immigration, including from Turkey, but is not formally recognised by Ankara.