Turkey offers to take back migrants from Greece in aid deal

Turkey offered Monday to take back all migrants arriving in Greece, in return for a doubling of EU refugee funds and other concessions by the bloc, according to draft proposals prepared for a Turkey-EU summit and seen by dpa.

Europe has struggled with an influx of migrants and asylum seekers that brought more than 1 million people to its shores last year, with some 135,000 more following since the start of 2016. Many are fleeing the war in Syria, but economic migrants have also joined their ranks.

To stem the flows, the European Union has sought help from Turkey, which has been the launch pad for most migrants. Last year, Brussels offered 3 billion euros (3.3 billion dollars) to improve the lives of Syrians in Turkey, in return for efforts by Ankara to prevent their onward journey.

"But still the waves of refugees are continuing," Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Monday. He was speaking at NATO, on the outskirts of Brussels, leaving the EU leaders to mull plans he had unexpectedly put to them earlier in the day.

Monday's talks were extended into the evening to discuss the new ideas out of Ankara.

"With this new proposal, our objective is to rescue the lives of the refugees, ... to fight against human smugglers, and to have a new era in Turkish-EU relations," the Turkish premier added.

Under the plan seen by dpa, Turkey would "readmit expeditiously all irregular migrants crossing into the Greek islands from Turkey ... for a temporary period and only for humanitarian purposes."

In return, the EU should directly take in Syrian refugees living on Turkish soil, with one asylum seeker to be resettled for each migrant taken back from Greece.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz said this would deal a "blow against traffickers," by convincing people to file for asylum before leaving Turkey, so as to be resettled in the EU.

But French President Francois Hollande spoke out against such a move ahead of the summit, arguing that it would make more sense to relocate Syrians directly out of Greece.

Davutoglu said that Ankara and Brussels would also seek to "rescue these refugees before they cross [the] Turkish border." He did not provide further details.

The Turkish proposal calls on the EU to approve an additional 3 billion euros for Syrian refugees in Turkey by 2018.

Other demands include the lifting of EU visa requirements for Turkish citizens before July and progress in Ankara's long-running efforts to join the bloc.

Davutoglu called for "solidarity" before meeting his EU counterparts, noting that Turkey and the bloc needed one another. Ankara says it has taken in 2.7 million Syrian refugees, at a cost of more than 10 billion dollars.

But Austrian Finance Minister Hans-Joerg Schelling said he was "not prepared" to make further funds available until countries including his received more help in shouldering the burdens of the refugee crisis.

The talks with Davutoglu also touched on other issues, notably the Turkish government's recent takeover of the Zaman opposition newspaper.

Leaders including British Prime Minister David Cameron voiced their concerns at the move during the summit, a Downing Street spokesperson said.

Earlier, Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel had called for an "honest" exchange with Davutoglu, saying "it cannot be that because of the refugee issue other values that are important for Europe, such as freedom of the media, just get thrown overboard."

EU leaders were also due to discuss border restrictions imposed along the Western Balkan migration route from Greece to northern Europe. The move has sparked a humanitarian crisis in Greece, which was already overwhelmed with thousands of stranded migrants.

More than 13,000 people were waiting to cross from Greece into Macedonia, aid agencies estimated early Monday. Local media reported that the border between the two countries was closed, including for freight trains.

Merkel is resisting moves at the summit to declare the Western Balkan route closed, as demanded by countries lying on its path.

"When it comes to the question of how we get the number of refugees to decrease not just for some, few countries, but for all countries - including Greece - it cannot be about closing something or other," Merkel told journalists.

Last update: Mon, 07/03/2016 - 20:26

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