EU summit to declare Balkan migrant route closed
BRUSSELS - Agence France-Presse
A woman and a boy walk along the railway track as refugees and migrants (Rear) wait for food in a makeshift camp at the Greek Macedonian borders near the Greek village of Idomeni, on March 4 , 2016. AFP PhotoEU leaders held a summit with Turkey's prime minister on March 7 in order to back closing the Balkans migrant route and urge Ankara to accept deportations of large numbers of economic migrants from overstretched Greece.
The European Union is hardening its stance in a bid to defuse the worst refugee crisis since World War II by increasingly putting the onus on Turkey and EU member Greece in return for aid.
The two form the main migrant gateway to Europe, with Greece the link to the western Balkans route that hundreds of thousands of migrants had taken until countries along the way began shutting their gates in a position now backed by the 28-nation bloc.
Tens of thousands of migrants desperate to reach wealthy Germany and Scandinavia are now trapped in debt-wracked Greece.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said his country was ready to work "shoulder to shoulder" with Europe on a deal on migration they signed in November, while also raising Ankara's long-stalled EU membership bid.
"Turkey is ready to work with EU. Turkey is ready to be member of EU as well," he said as he arrived in Brussels.
Davutoğlu said March 6 he would discuss with his EU counterparts efforts to start within weeks building schools and hospitals for refugees with the three billion euros ($3.3 billion) pledged by Europe under the November deal.
European leaders kept a pragmatic silence over the Turkish government's forcible takeover last week of the Zaman media group for having links to U.S. based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen - a former ally now consider the head of a "terrorist organization" aiming to topple the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.
Summit co-host the Netherlands said the bloc would not only push Turkey to stop the flow to Europe of all non-Syrian migrants but also eventually war-hit Syrians themselves.
"It's very important for Turkey to first take back all non-Syrian refugees but that's not enough," said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
"In the end, we want zero also for the flow of Syrian refugees."
A draft of the summit conclusions, which was approved by EU ambassadors on Sunday and obtained by AFP, says: "Irregular flows of migrants along the western Balkans route are coming to an end. This route is now closed."
The Balkans route became flooded after German Chancellor Angela Merkel last summer opened the doors to Syrian refugees -- Germany has now taken one million -- but with her popularity slumping she has since brought down the shutters.
Brussels on March 4 unveiled a plan to restore by the end of the year the full functioning of Europe's cherished passport-free Schengen zone after the series of border closures.
It was timed with calls for not only better cooperation from Turkey -- currently home to 2.7 million Syrian refugees -- but also the creation of an EU coastguard force by the summer and help for Greece to strengthen its external border.
EU leaders are set to stand by Greece after having last week promised 700 million euros in emergency aid.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras -- who has said he will not allow his country to become a "warehouse of souls" -- renewed calls March 7 for fellow EU members to honor a deal to relocate thousands of refugees.
"These agreements that we do not implement are not agreements at all. So now there is a difficult situation that we have to handle," he said.
The bloc adopted a scheme last September to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy, but fewer than 700 people have actually been moved.
Donald Tusk, the EU president and summit host, said in his invitation letter that success depended largely on securing Turkey's agreement for the "large-scale" deportation from Greece of economic migrants who do not qualify as refugees.
Syrians, who top the influx of 1.13 million people into Europe over the past 14 months, are considered genuine refugees requiring admission under international law.
Despite progress in implementing the November deal with Turkey, the EU said, too many people were still heading from Turkey to Greece, with nearly 2,000 arriving daily in February.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said meanwhile the alliance was broadening its new mission in the Aegean Sea to stop migrant smugglers while working more closely with the EU border agency Frontex.
British Prime Minister David Cameron announced March 6 that the Royal Navy was sending vessels to join ships from Canada, Germany, Greece and Turkey already deployed.
Just ahead of the Brussels meeting at least 25 migrants, including 10 children, perished after their wooden boat capsized trying to reach Greece.
The International Organization for Migration said before Sunday's deaths that a total of 418 people had died or gone missing already in 2016, most while attempting to reach Greece from Turkey aboard unseaworthy boats.