The European Union is preparing to pay Turkey tens of millions of euros to help bolster its coast guard, a senior EU official said Wednesday, as increasing numbers of people leave the country in hopes of finding sanctuary or jobs in Europe.
The Greek authorities are struggling to cope with a sharp rise in the number of migrant arrivals over the summer months on Lesbos and other islands in the eastern Aegean Sea, near the Turkish coast where EU-funded camps are suffering severe overcrowding and outbreaks of violence.
"We have prepared a set of measures amounting to some 50 million euros ($55 million)," said Maciej Popowski, the deputy director-general for EU enlargement policy.
He said part of the money would help to "improve the capacities of the Turkish coast guard to perform search and rescue operations."
The rest would be used to improve conditions in migrant detention centers and to help those people permitted to stay to better integrate into Turkish society. The money would be drawn from a budget meant to prepare Turkey to join the EU and from a separate "peace and stability" fund.
Turkey is a candidate for EU membership, but its accession negotiations are at a standstill amid concerns about democratic backsliding, notably on the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, media freedoms and allegations of human rights abuses.
After well over 1 million migrants entered Europe in 2015 – most of them fleeing conflict in Syria – the EU hurriedly agreed to pay Turkey up to 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) to stop migrants leaving the Turkish coast for Greece. Arrivals dropped to a relative trickle after it came into force.
But in the weeks prior to Turkey's invasion of northern Syria last month, Ankara sought more cash from the Europeans, claiming that the money, which is meant to help Syrians taking refuge on Turkish territory, was insufficient and that the EU has been too slow to provide it.
Popowski told EU lawmakers that Turkey directly requested more money from EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos during talks in Ankara in early October.
The migrant challenge in 2015 sparked one of Europe's biggest crises, as nations bickered over who should take responsibility for the arrivals and whether others should be obliged to help, so the EU is desperate to keep Turkey onside.
But Popowski noted that "the military operation in northern Syria has complicated things even further," because the EU does not want to be involved in any attempt to send refugees into the area, and it refuses to fund any Turkish military action.