October 22, 2016

Merkel in Turkey to discuss controversial refugee deal

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and top EU officials are set to visit the Turkish-Syrian border in an attempt to soothe tensions over the controversial refugee swap deal between the EU and Turkey.

Last month, Turkey and the EU reached a deal aimed at stopping the flow of refugees and migrants into Europe.

The deal initially slowed the number of arrivals to Greece sharply, but boats have been coming again with about 150 people a day, the International Organization for Migration said on Friday.

Under the deal, Ankara agreed to take back all refugees and migrants who enter the EU illegally, in return for the EU taking the same amount of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey.

As a part of the deal, Turkey wanted to negotiate EU accession, receive $6.8bn of EU funds to house Syrian refugees, and have short-term visas waived for its citizens before the end of June.

Turkey is currently hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees of any country – more than 2.7 million.

But human rights groups have warned that Turkey is not a safe place to return people.

Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was investigating reports about Turkish soldiers firing live bullets at the Syrian border – a charge Turkey has denied.

Also, Amnesty International said Turkish authorities have been rounding up and expelling groups of around 100 Syrian men, women and children to Syria on a near-daily basis since mid-January.

On the other hand, Turkish officials have warned the deal could collapse if demands for visa-free EU travel for its citizens are not met by the promised deadline in June.

The agreement says Turkey must meet 72 conditions by May 4 to earn the visa waiver, but diplomats say only half of those points have been met so far.

About 2.7 million Syrian refugees are currently registred in Turkey [Murad Sezer/Reuters]

Merkel, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans will go to the southern Turkish province Gaziantep, where they are due to visit a refugee camp and meet Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

“The leaders will also participate in an inauguration ceremony of EU-Turkey assistance projects,” a European Council statement read, adding the visit would offer an opportunity to assess the situation of refugees in Turkey.

Merkel’s visit comes as she faces criticism at home for allowing a German comedian to be prosecuted for insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Merkel’s decision to let prosecutors pursue a case against Jan Boehmermann angered many Germans, who saw it as a sop to an authoritarian leader.

“It is both sides that have a strong interest in making this work. Turkey wants support in easing the refugee burden – both financial support and in terms of numbers. And they want visa liberalisation. We have other interests,” a Merkel aide said, according to Reuters.

“Ultimately it will depend on both sides fulfilling the criteria they need to. If that doesn’t happen the deal won’t work. Whether it’s sustainable is not clear yet,” the aide added.

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