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Europe Will Close Main Migration Route at Today's Emergency Summit

It's a decisive moment for Europe today as leaders meet with Turkey and try to finally nail down a deal in which Ankara will get billions of euros in return for stemming the flow of migrants.
March 7, 2016, 12:20pm
Photo by Alexia Tsagkari/VICE News

European leaders will declare the migration route through the Balkans closed today at an emergency summit in Brussels, and will call on Turkey to do more to stop people making the treacherous journey from its shores to Greece.

The European Union (EU) will back up its call with a pledge of billions of euros in financial assistance to Turkey and more help for Greece, where tens of thousands of migrants and refugees will be stranded following the formal closure of the northern route out of the country. More than 30,000 migrants are already bottled up there at the moment and about 2,000 more arrive daily.

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The human cost of the crisis was thrown into sharp relief once again on Sunday with the drowning of 25 migrants attempting to travel by boat from Turkey to Greece. NATO announced the same day that a new naval force had secured approval for operating in Turkish and Greek waters, targeting people smugglers.

"Turkey has been carrying this burden pretty much on its own for five years," Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters at a news conference on Sunday before his departure for Brussels.

"But since the second half of 2015, this matter has become part of the Europe Union's agenda, and we are pleased with the sensibility Europe has displayed and its willingness to work together."

People currently trapped on the border between Greece and Macedonia. (Photo by Alexia Tsagkari)

Monday's summit will aim to make progress on an agreement made between the EU and Turkey last September which has remained mostly at a standstill. A draft communique also states that the western Balkan migrant route — though Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia — will be shut.

The EU offered Turkey 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) to do more to stop migrants from attempting the perilous journey — including accepting economic migrants who were sent back from other countries — in return of the revival of talks on Turkey's EU membership and the speeding up of a plan to give Turks easier visa access to the EU.

Greece committed in September to opening reception centers to accommodate 30,000 refugees by the end of 2015 with the United Nations providing another 20,000 places — a pledge it said on Monday it would meet within a week.

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The EU also promised as part of the deal to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other member states, but has so far only managed a few hundred.

A girl on the Balkan migration route that will be formally closed by the European Union on Monday. (Photo by Alexia Tsagkari)

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had earlier spent five hours with Davutoglu in Brussels — a meeting that ended at 2.45am local time on Monday — to nail down commitments to halt the migrant flow.

But Europe negotiating with Turkey at a time when the human rights situation there is vastly deteriorating has been met with criticism.

Referring to the Turkish government seizing control of a leading opposition newspaper last week, the French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told France Inter radio. "It's not acceptable. We can't want to get closer to European standards and not respect the pluralism of the media. It's obvious and we've said it clearly to the Turks."

Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the European Parliament's liberal bloc, put it in even blunter terms. "We should not sell our soul for a deal with a country simply because we are incapable of dealing with our problems and implementing a real European solution," he said.

"Again we continue to accept empty promises such as the returning of all non-Syrian migrants reaching Greek islands back to Turkey. In other words, we are accepting a deal to return migrants to a country which imprisons journalists, attacks civil liberties, and with a highly worrying human rights situation."

(Photo by Alexia Tsagkari/VICE News)

Amnesty International said Europe was shirking its responsibilities by attempting to use Turkey as a border guard. "Using Turkey as a 'safe third country' is absurd," said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia. "Many refugees still live in terrible conditions, some have been deported back to Syria and security forces have even shot at Syrians trying to cross the border."

So far this year, 135,000 migrants have reached Europe illegally, 126,000 via Turkey, and more than 400 have died, many on the so-called eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece, the International Organization for Migration has said.

Last year, 1 million people reached Europe through illegal routes, many fleeing economic and political turmoil in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. Most of them came through Turkey, which borders Syria, Iran, and Iraq, and most ended up in Germany.

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