Brussels: The European Union and Turkey set aside growing tensions by reaching an agreement to control the flow of refugees through the Aegean Sea, in a large-scale people-moving operation that was immediately denounced as impractical and legally suspect.
Syrian refugees who make it to Greece will be sent back to Turkey and others will be shipped from Turkish camps to Europe under a deal that risks being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of humanity on the run.
Greece’s struggle to process asylum applications and the threat that human traffickers will find other weak points in Europe’s porous borders also loomed as major obstacles to making the deal work. Failure to contain the flow will test the sustainability of the EU’s passport-free travel area and will put further pressure on member states already being assailed by a wave of populist sentiment stoked by anti-immigration political parties.
“I have no illusions that further setbacks will still go with what we’ve decided today,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters on Friday after the EU-Turkey summit in Brussels. “There are enormous logistical challenges that we have to tackle. But I believe that we’ve come to an accord that entails an element of irreversibility.”
The EU said it would roll out the welcome mat for an initial 72,000 Syrians, a quota that at the current pace would be exhausted by late May. Both sides set Sunday as the start date, hoping to deter refugees in Turkey from setting out for the Greek coast.
The primary question is whether people fleeing Middle Eastern wars will pay attention. Some 857,000 survived the Aegean passage in 2015. The 10 days between a preliminary EU-Turkey accord and the final deal saw more than 11,000 come ashore on the Greek islands, bringing the total on that route to 144,000 so far this year.
From the first trickle of refugees across the central Mediterranean Sea after the Arab revolutions of 2011 to the mass exodus from Syria via Turkey and the Balkans, European diplomacy has been condemned to playing permanent catch-up.
Geography condemned Greece, the trigger point of the euro debt crisis, to a central role in the migration drama. Five years of economic turmoil and budget cuts have enfeebled the government agencies in charge of coping with the refugee influx.
As a safety valve, Greece let incoming migrants move on towards northern Europe, in a “waving through” policy that came to an end when Austria and its neighbours set up, in effect, an alpine barrier. As of Friday morning, about 46,000 migrants were stranded on Greek territory.
“We are trying to hit the network of smugglers, we are trying to suppress these illegal routes,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said.
With Greece able to process a maximum of 1500 asylum applications a month, EU leaders pledged to send in judges, legal experts, social workers and translators to transform islands like Chios and Lesbos from tourist destinations into seaside courtrooms.
Syrians who are denied EU entry in Greece would be returned to Turkey and sent to the back of the line there. The EU would simultaneously house contingents of Syrians now in Turkish camps, in a relaunch of last year’s controversial resettlement programs that fell well short of targets.
Criticism poured in from human rights groups. As the summit was winding down, UNICEF warned it could be “deeply distressing and damaging” to send children, who make up 40 per cent of the refugee wave, back to an “uncertain future” in Turkey.
Some analysts said EU efforts to close the backdoor into the continent could spur the human-trafficking business instead of shutting it down.
“At least in the short term, there will be no resettlements unless refugees hire smugglers and continue risking their lives to reach the Greek islands,” Maurizio Albahari, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, said.
‘Tragedy of refugees’
The summit marked a settling of accounts between the EU and Turkey, which have grown further apart since the EU opened entry talks in 2005 and looked forward to building a bridge to the Muslim world. Those negotiations have made minimal progress, as Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan drifted from EU democratic norms.
Bargaining over refugees followed this week’s intensification of Turkey’s crackdown on opposition voices, with a British professor deported, Turkish academics thrown in jail, a German correspondent being withdrawn after being denied press accreditation and Mr Erdogan ordering legislators to rewrite laws to allow journalists and opposition politicians to be tried for terrorism.
Simmering antagonisms erupted in the post-summit press conference, with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu criticising Europe for mistreating refugees and Belgium for being soft on terrorism. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker defended Belgium as an “honourable country”. The briefing coincided with the first reports that Brussels police had arrested the ringleader of the Paris attacks that killed 130 in November.
“This is not a debate of values, but of interests,” Can Baydarol, an analyst at Abkad, an Ankara-based think tank, said. “The relationship between the EU and Turkey isn’t improving based on any normal, legal foundation, but is instead being shaped through the tragedy of refugees.”