On Friday, the EU and Turkey came to an agreement on a set of proposals to stem the flow of Mid-East asylum seekers into Western Europe.
The focus of the discussions in Brussels was cutting off the sea route to Greece. On the front lines is the Greek island Lesbos where at least half of the 144,000 refugees who have entered Greece in 2016 have landed. More than a million people crossed the Aegean to Greece last year.
The new deal between the EU and Turkey calls for Ankara to take back all refugees arriving in Greece by sea after their asylum claims are processed. For every refugee that is sent back, Europe will take refugees directly from Turkey in a kind of one-for-one swap. The point is to discourage people smugglers by effectively making the sea trip pointless. “If returns begin migrants won't want to pay $1,000-2,000 to a smuggler,” Antonis Sofiadelis, head of the coastguard operations on Lesbos explains.
As part of the deal, Turkey will also get as much as €6 billion in aid and will have its EU membership application fast-tracked. Here are the specifics (on which the deal is notably short) for those who might have missed it:
- Sending Migrants Back to Turkey From Greece
- All migrants who travel to Greece from Turkey using irregular means after an agreement is reached will be returned to Turkey, in what the agreement calls “a temporary and extraordinary measure, which is necessary to end the human suffering and restore public order.”
- A One-for-One Swap of Syrians
- For each Syrian migrant returned to Turkey, the European Union will directly resettle another Syrian from Turkey, with priority given to Syrians who have not previously entered, or tried to enter, the European Union, up to a total of 72,000.
- If that number is reached — as it almost certainly will be — a new round of negotiations will be held.
- Stricter Controls of Turkey’s Borders
- Turkey will take “all necessary measures” to prevent migrants from opening new sea or land routes to the European Union from Turkey in a measure aimed at assuaging concerns in Bulgaria that migrants will stream into the country.
- Concessions for Turkey
- The European Union will speed up the disbursement of the €3 billion it pledged in November, and provide another €3 billion by the end of 2018, once Turkey meets its commitments.
- The European Union will waive most visa requirements for Turkish citizens by the end of June, provided that Turkey meets certain requirements.
But while the deal is effectively in place now, sending refugees back to Turkey from Greece won’t be possible until April, the deadline for setting up the administrative infrastructure that will allow for the swift processing of asylum applications.
In the meantime, the flow continues. “They waved, cheered and smiled, elated to have made it to Europe at dawn on Sunday in a packed blue rubber motor boat,” Reuters writes, recounting the scene on Lesbos as dawn broke on Sunday. Here’s more:
The 50 or so refugees and migrants were among the first to arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos on day one of an EU deal with Turkey designed to close the route by which a million people crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece in 2015.
Exhausted but relieved, the new arrivals wrapped their wet feet in thermal blankets as volunteers handed out dry clothes and supplies.
Reuters witnesses saw three boats arrive within an hour in darkness in the early hours of Sunday. Two men were pulled out unconscious from one of the boats amid the screams of fellow passengers and were later pronounced dead.
Twelve boats had arrived on the shoreline near the airport by 6 a.m, a police official said. A government account put the number of arrivals across Greece in the past 24 hours at 875 people.
Among the early morning arrivals on the seaweed strewn beach on the south of Lesbos was Syrian Hussein Ali Muhammad, whose studies were interrupted after the war began. He said he wanted to go to Denmark to continue university. Asked if he was aware of the European decision, he said:
"I know that. I hope to cross these borders. I hope I complete my studies here (in Europe), just this. I don't want money, I just want to complete my studies. This is my message."
Doubts remain about whether the deal is legal or workable. It was not clear what would happen to the tens of thousands of migrants and refugees already in Greece.
No, it's not clear. And as we've seen over the past several weeks, there's now a crisis in Idomeni where more than 15,000 refugees are stranded in makeshift camps now that Macedonia has closed its borders.
On Friday, Greek Interior Minister Panagiotis Kouroumplis compared the camps to Dachau. "I wouldn’t hesitate to say that this is a modern Dachau," he said, lamenting what he called “the awakening of a kind of nationalism against persecuted people." This should give you an idea of what life is like in Idomeni:
Those arriving on Lesbos Sunday said they were aware of the deal between Brussels and Ankara, and you can bet they're also acutely aware that the Macedonian border is closed. But they don't care. "I know the decision," a 30-year old computer engineer from Syria told Reuters. "I hope to (meet with) my wife and children [who are in Germany]."
As we've said repeatedly, the scope of the "problem" simply defies any attempt on Europe's part to cope - especially when Brussels is dependent upon Erdogan to be the first line of defense. Refugees didn't leave Syria to be blown up or persecuted in Turkey. They left to get to Europe. Threatening them with expulsion if they decide to use the sea route to reach Greece isn't going to deter anyone. They already know they can be expelled. They likely also know that the new plan will be virtually impossible to implement.
And so, as we look on while the Schengen dream dies amid a nationalistic furor not seen in Europe for more than seven decades, we bring you the following images from Reuters which depict the scene just this morning on the Greek island of Lesbos.