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Turkey to EU: If you want to send us back your migrants, send money

Syrian Refugees EU

The European Union and Turkey were locked Monday in high-stakes bargaining over Europe’s proposals to send non-Syrian migrants back across the Aegean in attempts to ease the continent’s deepening humanitarian crisis.

The EU moves come amid a worrisome backdrop as more than 13,000 desperate refugees and others are stranded in makeshift camps at the barricaded border with Macedonia — with the human tide into Europe likely to grow as the weather warms.

But Turkey — the pathway for more than a million asylum seekers, economic migrants and others in the past year — has set a high bar for agreeing to the plan, which was under discussion in Brussels.

At stake is billions of dollars in aid and revived talks over Turkey’s decades-long push to join the European Union, where opponents of Turkish membership have cited many potential obstacles including crackdowns on free expression and dissent.

The deal, originally proposed in November, reflects an increasing desire across Europe to curb the flow of the 1.2 million migrants who arrived on the continent last year — even if it means resettling them in a place many view as unsafe for asylum.

According to Human Rights Watch, Turkey does not provide adequate protection for refugees and has frequently sent asylum seekers back to Syria. Although it has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, Turkey is the only country in the world that recognizes refugee status only for citizens of certain countries. Only Syrians among the current crop of refugees can claim such status.

Europe’s desperate need for Turkey’s assistance has placed the country in a prime position for negotiation.

In what seemed like a test for European leaders, the Turkish government Friday seized control of Zaman, the country’s largest newspaper. Although the European Union considers press freedom a fundamental right, European leaders may look the other way if Ankara agrees to help.

“It’s a slap in the face,” one senior EU official told Reuters. Turkish President Recep Erdogan, the official said, “wants obviously to show that he can do what he wants.”

In Brussels on Monday, French President François Hollande insisted that Europe’s reliance on Turkey’s participation did not mean the EU condoned restrictions on the press. “Co-operating with Turkey doesn’t mean we should not be extremely vigilant about press freedom,” he said. “And I am.”

Yet if Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accepts the proposed resettlement of all migrants not in need of international protections, Europe, in return, is primed to expedite Turkey’s accession to the European Union, a long-desired aim.

“We are not here just to talk about the migrants,” Osman Sert, Davutoglu’s spokesman, said Monday. “Turkey’s accession to the EU is an issue for us here.”

Davutoglu surprised delegates in Brussels with a proposal that offered more than the European Union had initially asked but demanded more in return. In addition to taking back non-Syrian migrants denied asylum in Europe, Turkey also promised to take back migrants intercepted in its territorial waters. It also pledged to crack down harder on smuggling groups.

In return, diplomats said, it requested far more money in aid, expedited visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in Europe and accelerated deliberations on its accession to the bloc. EU diplomats seemed willing to compromise on existing visa restrictions, provided that Turkey change its visa policies for Islamic states and introduce biometric passports.

Reuters initially reported that the exact amount Turkey requested was as large 20 billion euros, but by Monday afternoon both Turkey and the EU had agreed to 3 billion euros ($4.4 billion Canadian) in addition to the existing 3 billion euros Europe had already promised in aid for Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Speaking from Turkey on Monday, Erdogan complained that although four months have passed since the EU promised aid, no money has yet been received.

“My prime minister is currently in Brussels,” Erdogan said. “I hope he will return with the money.” In Brussels, Sert reiterated that the money was “not for Turkey” but “for Syrians in Turkey.”

Leaders of the European Union have come under significant pressure to manage the largest European immigration crisis since the end of the Second World War. After more than one million people arrived by sea last year, about 2,000 people are arriving in Greece from Turkey every day. On Sunday, local media reported at least 25 people drowned off the Turkish coast attempting to reach Greece.

The summit in Brussels comes just days after Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, appealed to migrants directly: “I want to appeal to all potential illegal economic migrants wherever you are from: Do not come to Europe.”

The Star.

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