On 17 and 18 March, EU heads of state and government met in Brussels for a regular European Council session. Although the leaders discussed issues of economy and energy on the first day, the main point of agenda was migration. On the table was a proposal for a EU-Turkey deal that the Turkish Prime Minister proposed at a special EU-Turkey summit on 7 March. EU diplomats worked since then to write a legally-sound and politically acceptable agreement. Although many countries signaled problems with some of its elements, the leaders were able to reach unanimous support on Thursday evening and on Friday, at a meeting with Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu, the deal was officially sealed.
As of 20 March, every migrant arriving to Greece from Turkey illegally will be returned. Those who will be intercepted by NATO vessels in Turkish territorial waters will be turned around directly. Those who will have reached Greek islands will be allowed to apply for asylum, as requires the international and EU law. Very quickly, however, the claim will be processed by Greek authorities, operating on the ground, and rejected as inadmissible based on the safe third country concept. The migrant will then be returned to Turkey. For each Syrian returned this way to Turkey, the EU will accept one Syrian refugee for Turkey. EU member states will distribute these relocated Syrians based on the already agreed temporary quotas – 72,000 were agreed as the target number. This whole mechanism will be financed by the EU. Turkey will also be provided with extra €3 billion, once the already agreed sum of money allocated to it is completely spent. At the same time, EU and Turkey will speed up the work on the implementation of visa-free travel of Turkish citizens to the EU. For this, though, every EU requirement must be met (including e.g. biometric passports). The EU also agreed to open one additional non-controversial chapter in the accession talks with Turkey.
According to EU insiders, the returns mechanism is above all a strong signal to migrants and smugglers that there is no use trying to get to the EU illegally. Officials will also monitor the possible opening of new migration routes and are ready to act swiftly. The main challenge will be Greek capacity to quickly process potentially thousands of asylum claims, including possible court appeals. EU countries stand ready to provide Greece with hundreds of asylum officers to carry out the administrative processes. Although the UNHCR will be part of the proceedings, some NGOs voiced their concerns about the possible illegality of the deal. EU diplomats are convinced, though, that the agreement fully respects international law. The only legal issue is Turkish national law, which will have to be altered to allow for accepting of returned migrants. Although the conditions of the new agreement will apply to all illegal migrants entering Greece starting on 20 March, experts expect first returns in about two weeks time – once all the administrative requirements are met.
20th February 2019
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