The number of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece is “still way too high”, a top EU official said Monday, a month and a half after a deal aimed to limit the flow.
European Union vice president Frans Timmermans said Turkey and Brussels had to speed work up on implementing the action plan, while Ankara reaffirmed it was looking at a measure to tempt more Syrians to stay in Turkey by granting them work permits.
“The numbers are still way too high in Greece, between 2,000-3,000 people (arriving) every day. We cannot be satisfied at this stage,” Timmermans told reporters after talks with Turkey's EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir in Ankara.
“The goal of this (action plan) is to stem the flow. 2,000-3.000 (arrivals) a day is not stemming the flow. But we are in this together and we will work on that,” he added.
Under the November 29 deal, EU leaders pledged three billion euros ($3.2 billion) in aid for the more than 2.2 million Syrian refugees sheltering in Turkey, in exchange for Ankara acting to reduce the flow.
Under pressure from voters at home, EU leaders want to reduce the numbers coming to the European Union after over one million migrants reached Europe in 2015.
Yet there has so far been no sign of a significant reduction in the numbers of migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and other troubled states undertaking the perilous crossing in rubber boats from Turkey's western coast to EU-member Greece.
Turkish authorities on a single day last week found the bodies of at least 36 migrants, including several children, washed up on beaches and floating off its western coast after their boats sank.
In the latest tragedy Monday, two women and a five-year-old girl died when a boat carrying 16 Afghan migrants sank in bad weather off the Aegean coast, reports said.
“I believe we need to speed our work to get some of the projects in place,” said Timmermans.
“I also said to the minister that we need… to be very explicit on what elements of the action plan have already been implemented and where we still need work.”
Bozkir said that Turkey was expending “intense efforts” on halting the migrant flow, saying the Turkish authorities were stopping 500 people every day.
“We will try to reduce the pressure on illegal immigration by giving work permits to Syrians in Turkey,” he added.
This idea has been floated on occasion by the Turkish government but many people remain hostile to the measure on the grounds it could take away jobs from qualified Turks.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said last week it estimated that in the first three days of 2016 alone just over 5,000 migrants and refugees crossed into Greece despite the onset of winter weather.
With concern also growing in Europe over the migrant influx after a spate of New Year sex assaults in Germany, Pope Francis urged European governments to keep welcoming new arrivals.
He said the sheer size of the influx was causing “inevitable problems” and raising concerns about “changes in the cultural and social structures” of host countries.
But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a keynote address earlier that Europe had waited too long to react to the influx.
“Unfortunately the international community heard our warnings about the migration crisis very late,” Cavusoglu told a meeting of Turkish ambassadors in Ankara.
“They only understood the seriousness when the body of tiny Aylan washed up on one of our beaches and wave after wave of migrants came to their own doors.”
The images of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi lying face-down on a Turkish beach in September 2015 spurred Europe into greater action on the migrant crisis.