EU-Turkey refugee deal amounts to 'horse-trading' with human lives
But the agreement looks set to face legal challenges by the human rights' groups, who along with the United Nations, condemned the move.
An outline of the deal was released in an EU-statement and was said to have been thrashed out following extended meetings between EU heads of state and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Brussels, and concluded on Tuesday.
Ankara offered to take back all refugees who crossed into Europe from Turkey if the EU agrees to resettle one Syrian living in Turkey on its territory for every Syrian refugee Turkey takes back from Greece.
Included in the provisional agreement are proposals to accelerate the 3 billion euro [$3.3bn] EU payment to Turkey to help deal with refugees. There were also promises for further talks on visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in Europe, as well as Turkish accession plans to the EU.
"With these new proposals we aim to rescue refugees, discourage those who misuse and exploit their situation and find a new era in Turkey-EU relations," Davutoglu said.
The decision is "game-changing" the Turkish prime minister added.
EU president Donald Tusk described the outcome as a "breakthrough," and said he would now work on the legal details to reach a final deal at the EU summit in Brussels on 17-18 March.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said the real was a "real-game changer" and that it was legally feasible.
In their closing statement announcing the deal, the EU heads of state said that "irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkans route have now come to an end".
The Turkish-EU proposal
|What does the agreed plan propose?
- To return all irregular migrants to Turkey with costs covered by the EU
- To resettle one Syrian ‘within the framework of the existing commitments’ in the EU for every Syrian returned to Turkey from Greece
- To accelerate visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the EU by end of June 2016
- To accelerate the payment of 3 billion Euro from the EU to Turkey for refugee aid
- To facilitate new discussions regarding the accession of Turkey to the European Union
- To work alongside Turkey in improving humanitarian conditions inside Syria
With potential for a comprehensive Turkish-EU agreement looking unlikely over the weekend, the Turkish prime minister offered a raft of proposals including the "one-in-one-out" model for Syrian refugees before the parties came to a final agreement.
The prime minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras, said Turkey had come to the table with "tempting proposals that surprised many people".
To some surprise, commentators added that the series of proposals all came from the Turkish side and were accepted wholesale by EU leaders.
As part of the deal, the Turkish prime minister also asked for an extra €3.3 billion in aid for Turkey, as well as the bringing forward of scheduled visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and new discussions regarding Turkey's accession to the EU.
Following an extension of discussions into Monday and Tuesday, the final principles of the proposal were outlined in a collective statement by EU heads of state and government.
Doubts remain, however, as to the feasibility of the plan with certain EU-member states, notably Hungry, going on record saying it would oppose any Europe-wide resettlement plan.
Questions have also been flagged regarding the fate of non-Syrian refugees returned to Turkey with the "one-in-one-out" plan covering Syrian refugees alone.
A significant portion of refugees arriving in EU-member countries include those from Afghanistan, Iraq and North Africa.
With the plan stating that "all irregular migrants not in need of international protection" shall be returned from Turkey to Greece, the fate of those defined "not in need of international protection", which currently covers Syrians alone, remains unclear.
The UN and rights groups voice opposition
Both UN and human rights agencies have roundly condemned the deal.
The proposals are "wrought with moral and legal" flaws and amounted effectively to "horse-trading" said Amnesty International.
"The idea of bartering refugees for refugees is not only dangerously dehumanising, but also offers no sustainable long term solution to the ongoing humanitarian crisis," said Iverna McGowan, head of Amnesty's European Institutions Office.
"EU and Turkish leaders have sunk to a new low, effectively horse trading away the rights and dignity of some of the world's most vulnerable people," she added.
"The persistent preoccupation with shipping people back to Turkey instead of making unconditional efforts on resettlement and offering other safe and legal ways to Europe shows an alarmingly short-sighted and inhumane attitude to handling this crisis," Amnesty added in its statement.
Opposition to the plan and the legal failings of the potential deal were highlighted by head of the UN refugee agency Filippo Grandi.
"I am deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law," he told the European parliament.
UNHCR director for Europe Vincent Cochetel also voiced concern.
"Sending back people who would not have access to protection in Turkey poses a certain number of problems in terms of international law and European law," Cochetel said on Swiss radio RTS on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, at least 13,000 refugees stranded on the Greek-Macedonia border faced closed gates Tuesday, with faded hopes of ever being able to resume their journey forward into wealthy European states.