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EU offers Turkey $3B, visas to help stem refugee flow

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said $3B was reasonable; refugee action plan cannot work without Turkey’s help

The European Union has offered Turkey a possible $3.41 billion in aid and the prospect of easier travel visas and re-energized talks on joining the bloc in return for its help stemming the flow of refugees to Europe.

EU leaders at a summit in Brussels said early on Friday that they agreed on an action plan with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to cooperate on improving the lives of 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and encouraging them to stay put.

They also agreed to coordinate border controls to slow the influx of refugees crossing Turkey from the Middle East and other parts of Asia. 

Already hosting more than 2 million Syrians, Turkey has become a launching point for refugees — among them Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others — who set out for Europe via dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossings. Since January, about 710,000 people have crossed into Europe — a record number, according to Frontex, the EU border agency. About 3,000 people have died while making the dangerous journey.

Though the plan put no figure on "substantial and concrete new funds" the EU would offer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the figure of 3 billion euros, or $3.41 billion, which EU officials said Ankara requested, was discussed and seemed reasonable.

"Our intensified meetings with Turkish leaders ... in the last couple of weeks were devoted to one goal: stemming the migratory flows that go via Turkey to the EU. The action plan is a major step in this direction," said summit chairman Donald Tusk, expressing "cautious optimism."

In formal conclusions agreed to by the 28 national leaders at a meeting that ended after midnight, Turkey was offered an accelerated path to giving its citizens visa-free travel to the EU, provided it met previously agreed upon conditions.

Merkel, who will visit Istanbul for talks with Erdogan on Sunday, two weeks before a Turkish general election, said it was clear that Europe's efforts to filter and process refugees would not work without Turkey's cooperation.

French President François Hollande stressed that Turks were not getting visas on easier terms. One condition is that Ankara must first stop granting easy entry to Pakistanis, Afghans and others who end up heading to Europe.

Turkey must also first sign and implement a previously agreed upon deal to take back from Europe people who fail to win refugee status. "There must be no misunderstandings," Hollande said.

European lawmakers meeting in Brussels on Thursday pinned their hopes on cooperation from Turkey in the effort to help stop refugees from crossing into the European Union — a position that experts said continues a logic of externalization in dealing with the refugee crisis.

Merkel told German lawmakers in Berlin on Thursday before the meeting that "without a doubt, Turkey plays a key role in this matter," signaling many Europeans’ fears that hundreds of thousands more people will arrive from Turkey, where about 2.2 million Syrians are staying after fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq and Eritrea. Some experts estimate that up to 2 million more refugees may travel to Europe, depending on how Russia pursues its military operations in Syria.

"Most war refugees who come to Europe travel via Turkey,” Merkel said Thursday. "We won't be able to order and stem the refugee movement without working together with Turkey."

Some experts said such collaboration would shift part of the responsibility to tackle the crisis to the EU's neighbors. After EU leaders failed in September to persuade their eastern members to agree on a quota system to relocate refugees from Italy and Greece across the bloc, Turkey is being asked to shoulder more of the burden, said Kemal Kirisci, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

“Externalization is a very classic tactic that goes hand in hand with EU migration policies,” Kirisci said. “The EU have in the past adopted policies that try to keep refugees from coming to the EU.”

One way that this is done, he added, is by stemming irregular migration with "promises of development assistance, trade access and visa facilitation.”

Some of these promises are included in a draft action plan that EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proposed earlier in October, which would have Turkey crack down on smugglers and increase border protection in exchange for visa facilitations of Turkish citizens, extra funds for the building of six refugee reception centers and other incentives.

While lawmakers look to Turkey to prevent more people from reaching Europe, individual countries have been passing domestic measures that limit protections for potential asylum seekers.

In Germany, lawmakers on Thursday approved legislation designating Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia safe countries, speeding up the possible return to those nations of migrants not deemed eligible for international protection. In Belgium, asylum seekers from Baghdad are no longer automatically granted protection, according to a measure passed in October. Also, the Netherlands has cut some benefits to refugees, prioritizing other applicants' social housing requests.

Bill Frelick, the director of the refugee program at Human Rights Watch, urged member countries to act in accordance with EU law. "The member states of the EU need to provide asylum to those people who meet the criteria of need and provide protection to those people making claims in their countries," he said.

With The Associated Press

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