Migrant crisis: Rights groups slam EU-Turkey refugee swap proposal

Updated 1:34 PM EST, Wed March 9, 2016
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Story highlights

NEW: Macedonia closes border with Greece, where 11,000-plus migrants are stranded

NEW: Macedonia is latest country along the main Balkan migrant route to close its doors

U.N. agency: Mass return of refugees to Turkey wouldn't be "consistent with European law"

CNN —  

Turkey and the European Union have reached agreement on key points of a proposal to handle the overflow of refugees, according to a tweet for the spokesman of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Under the proposed deal, Ankara would agree to take back all migrants who leave Turkey’s shores for Europe in the future, including those intercepted in its territorial waters, on the condition that one legitimate Syrian refugee is resettled in Europe for every Syrian returned to Turkey.

EU-Turkey migrant deal in 5 questions – how would it actually work?

But international humanitarian groups have harshly criticized parts of the agreement, with a senior official from the U.N. refugee agency saying Tuesday that sending back refugees en masse would not be “consistent with European law.”

“An agreement that would be tantamount to a blanket return to a third country is not consistent with European law, not consistent with international law,” Vincent Cochetel, Europe regional director of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters in Geneva, Switzerland.

EU chief: Irregular migration into Europe is ‘over’

The plan would also see the EU provide Turkey with billions in additional funding for refugees, speed up talks on Turkey joining the EU and accelerate the lifting of visa requirements for Turkish citizens in Europe. The proposal still requires details to be hammered out before being sent for approval by EU leaders next week.

“The days of irregular migration to the European Union are over,” said Donald Tusk, president of the European Council – as the group of 28 EU leaders is known – at the end of this week’s emergency summit in Brussels, Belgium.

He said Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had “confirmed Turkey’s commitment to accept the rapid return of all migrants coming from Turkey to Greece that are not in need of international protection.”

“The EU will support Greece in ensuring comprehensive, large-scale and fast-track returns to Turkey,” Tusk said.

A statement from EU heads of government said they agreed that “bold moves were needed” to break the business model of smugglers, highlighting the importance of a NATO anti-trafficking mission in the Aegean Sea that just expanded into Greek and Turkish territorial waters.

“We need to break the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe,” the statement said.

Davutoglu said that his country, which hosts more Syrian refugees than any other, was motivated to enter into the arrangement primarily out of humanitarian concern.

“We don’t want to see women and children dying in the Aegean Sea,” he told reporters, according to Turkey’s semiofficial Anadolu news agency.

Balkans migration route effectively closed

European leaders are grappling with the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, with more than 1 million people having entered EU territory since the start of 2015. Most of the migrants are from Syria, where the civil war has created more than 4 million refugees and displaced a further 6 million within the country.

The majority have come by using trafficking networks to cross the Aegean, which separates Turkey and Greece, before heading overland through the Balkans to Germany and other northern European countries.

The crossing is dangerous, with more than 400 migrants having died so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Recently, a number of countries along the Balkan migration route agreed to all but close their borders, leaving a bottleneck of desperate migrants stranded in Greece, already struggling with a debt crisis.

Thousands of refugees stuck on Greece-Macedonia border as new rules take hold

Tusk confirmed at the summit’s end that EU leaders had decided to “end the ‘wave-through approach’” through countries along the overland route to Western Europe.

“Irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkans route have now come to an end,” the EU heads of government said in a joint statement.

Making good on that vow, Serbia closed its southern borders, with Macedonia and Bulgaria, at midnight Tuesday, before Macedonia followed suit, sealing its border with Greece.

“We stopped accepting migrants at the border with Greece March 8 due to the fact that the Serbian government stopped accepting migrants on March 6 and the migrants couldn’t reach their destination,” a spokeswoman for the Macedonian Interior Ministry told CNN.

More than 11,000 people have been stuck on the Greece-Macedonia border in a transit camp at Idomeni designed for 1,500, according to Doctors Without Borders.

Serbia said it learned from Croatia that Slovenia, another EU member, would not receive migrants without valid visas and passports, effectively closing the Balkan route.

“Serbia cannot afford to become a collection center for refugees, so it will consolidate all measures with the European Union, and reciprocally apply them in its southern and eastern borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria,” Serbia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs told CNN in an email.

Those with no visas ‘cannot enter the Schengen area’

In Slovenia, the Government Communications Office director confirmed that the country was closing its borders at midnight Tuesday.

“People who don’t have proper documents – i.e. people who don’t have papers for Schengen – cannot enter the Schengen area,” Kristina Krajnc Plavsak told CNN. “We are strictly implementing Schengen rules.”

She said the closure comes in coordination with Slovenia’s neighbors and with other countries on the Balkan route, and it was not a unilateral decision.

Tusk said the EU would deploy “massive humanitarian assistance” to Greece to help it respond to the effects of the route’s closure and would offer aid for the country to manage its external border.

Migrants were sent back from Greece to Turkey last week, Tusk said, in what he described as the “first visible step” of the Greek-Turkish bilateral agreement.