EU foreign ministers called on Turkey on Friday to honour the 2016 deal it signed with Brussels on keeping asylum-seekers from travelling to Europe. The message came from a meeting in Zagreb set up to articulate the bloc's response to the ongoing crisis on Turkey's border with Greece.
An extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers of EU member countries was held in Zagreb on Friday, called to agree on a joint response to the ongoing crisis on Turkey’s border with Greece and Bulgaria.
Thousands of refugees from Syria mixed in with migrants from all over the Middle East are stuck in the border area, after Turkey had announced last month that it would allow people to freely travel towards their desired destinations in Western Europe.
The move, widely seen as Turkey’s attempt at leveraging European support for its military campaign in war-torn Syria, caused fears in the EU that this might trigger a new migrant wave, similar to the unprecedented crisis of 2015 when more than a million migrants and refugees travelled via Greece and the Balkans towards wealthier western European countries to seek asylum.
Before the meeting, the foreign ministers welcomed a ceasefire which Russia and Turkey agreed on Thursday. Turkey, allied with rebel Syrian units, is fighting against Russian-backed Syrian government forces in northwestern Syria. The city of Idlib, located some 30 kilometres away from the Turkey-Syria border, has recently become the epicentre of escalating violence, forcing thousands of residents to seek shelter in Turkey.
The ministers announced in Zagreb that they would consider a proposal to create a safe zone in northern Syria – an idea floated by Germany’s Angela Merkel earlier this week, and supported by the Dutch Foreign Minister, Stef Blok – as well as giving additional funding to Turkey.
“Turkey is bearing the brunt of caring for refugees, but at the same time it is unacceptable that migrants are being used as a means of pressure,” EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, was quoted by Croatia’s state agency Hina.
Some ministers claimed that the migrants heading for the Greek border – which Athens reinforced with additional security forces – had spent years in Turkey already, and not people fleeing from violence in Idlib.
“That’s clear proof that this movement has been created and orchestrated by Turkey. The EU won’t let human suffering be instrumentalised,” Greek Foreign Minister, Nikos Dendias, said.
Acknowledging Turkey’s efforts to stop the migrant wave of 2015, Croatia – which was one of the countries on the so-called Balkan route and which currently holds the rotating six-month Presidency of the EU – called on Turkey to honour the 2016 agreement.
“That’s what we want. I believe it’s the only solution to prevent a repeat of the situations we had four and a half years ago,” Croatia’s Prime Minister, Andrej Plenkovic, said.
He added that the migrants who had arrived at the Greek border in the past few days should return to Turkey. Meanwhile, Turkey also reinforced its border with Greece, catching thousands of people in a virtual no man’s land between Greece and Turkey.
“We think that’s the most appropriate option. They are not people who came because of the current situation in Idlib, but people who have been in Turkey for several years… We are against violence and for a humanitarian approach. We believe that there are (other) sufficient measures that can be applied (here), not necessarily rubber bullets” Plenkovic said, referring to scenes of Greek border police using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse migrants at border crossings.
Dutch Foreign Minister, Stef Blok, said it was necessary to see to migrants’ dignity when protecting the border. “I wasn’t there, but all people should be treated with respect,” he said.
Estonia’s Foreign Minister, Urmas Reinslau, defended the use of rubber bullets, describing them as a legitimate means for deterring migrants. “The defence of Europe’s external border is not a humanitarian, but a security issue, although it has humanitarian aspects. The Greek can undertake all measures to prevent violation of law,” Reinslau was quoted by Hina as saying.
The ministers agreed that a new donor conference for Syria would be held in Brussels on June 29-30.