The European Union executive is drafting a plan to fly limited numbers of refugees from Turkey direct to Europe, EU officials said on Tuesday, following a weekend deal under which Ankara promised to help cut chaotic mass inflows.
So far, 886,662 people seeking safety have reached European shores this year, about four times the total in 2014, and mostly through Turkey, according to UN data. That has set EU governments against each other and strained to breaking point their system of passport-free travel across most national borders.
To stem the influx, EU leaders reached an agreement with Turkey on Sunday offering cash, easier visas for Turkish travellers to Europe and renewed talks to join the EU, in exchange for Turkey's engagement to better patrol its borders and improve the conditions of the refugees it hosts.
The deal also pledged some “burden-sharing” to help Turkey cope with the more than 2.2 million Syrians on its territory.
Beyond cash, this is likely to take the form of a plan to resettle some Syrians directly to the EU, officials said.
The EU's executive Commission will present a proposal for an ad hoc resettlement scheme before a summit of the 28 EU leaders scheduled for Dec. 17-18, where the plan will be discussed.
Refugees may be flown directly from Turkey, and also from Lebanon and Jordan which host millions of refugees too, to EU countries that volunteer to adhere to the plan.
“It will be a coalition of the willing,” an EU official said, while acknowledging that the number of available countries is still unclear, let alone the target figure of refugees.
Group of eight
On the sidelines of the EU-Turkey summit on Sunday, eight EU countries discussed taking part. Germany is seen as the keenest supporter of the plan; leaders of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria, Sweden, Finland and Greece also attended, while France may also join the group.
However, officials underscore that not all these countries are necessarily committed to taking part. The Dutch and Finns are seen as the most sceptical.
“Setting up a restricted group of countries pushing ahead may be counterproductive, as it may create further disincentives for eastern European countries to take responsibilities,” an EU official said.
Poland, Hungary and Slovakia were among the firmest opponents of an earlier EU plan to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece to other EU states. This was agreed amid much acrimony in September, but has yet to take off.
As most refugees reach first Greece from Turkey on their journey to northern European countries, a scheme to resettle people direct from Turkey could make the earlier plan redundant.
EU diplomats will discuss how to design the resettlement plan on Friday in Brussels. EU interior and migration ministers will hold a regular meeting there on the same day.
A precondition for the plan to work is Turkey's fulfilment of its commitments on stemming the flow of migrants to Greece.
On Monday, just a few hours after the deal with the EU, Turkish authorities rounded up some 1,300 migrants that they said were planning to sail to Greece from hideouts near secluded Aegean beaches and forests.
“The resettlement scheme will only work if the irregular migration stops and if Turks bring down the numbers very substantially,” an EU official said. “First indications prove they are perfectly capable of doing that.”