Europe turns to Turkey for migrant crisis help

Europe’s leaders will offer Turkey $3.2 billion, an easing of visa restrictions and the fast-tracking of its EU membership process

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Five years ago, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi warned that millions of Africans wanted to come to the European Union and offered to make the continent’s immigration problem disappear in exchange for billions of euros.

Despite Libyan rights abuses, Europe listened, and Italy signed a deal with the Qaddafi regime.

At a high-profile summit in Brussels Sunday, Europe’s leaders will offer Turkey 3 billion euros ($3.2 billion), an easing of visa restrictions and the fast-tracking of its EU membership process.

In exchange, Ankara is to tighten border security and take back some migrants who don’t qualify for asylum in Europe. EU money will help build centers to hold them.

The Europeans hope Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who will not attend the summit — can be their savior, yet disturbing questions remain over Turkey’s human rights record.

“He’s king of playing hardball. He’s a smart guy, he knows how to act, he knows what to say in order to achieve benefits,” said Amanda Paul, a senior analyst at the European Policy Centre think-tank.

According to the International Organization for Migration, almost 900,000 people have entered Europe this year seeking sanctuary or jobs. More than 600,000 have entered through Greece, many after making the short sea crossing from Turkey.

Though the distance is short, the crossing is dangerous. On Friday, six children drowned in the two separate accidents. In one case, two sisters, aged 4 and 1, drowned when a wooden boat capsized in bad weather near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. Hours later, four Afghan children drowned when their boat sank further north off the town of Ayvacik, a main crossing point for migrants trying to reach the island of Lesbos.

So Turkey has become an indispensable actor as the refugee emergency leads some European nations to shut down borders, crack down on security or erect razor-wire fences.

Many fear the future of Europe’s 26-nation passport-free Schengen travel area, indeed the very project of European unity, is in jeopardy.

“We have to try to cooperate with Turkey because, in fact, we have no other options,” European Council President Donald Tusk told EU lawmakers last month.

An unpalatable truth is that the EU is well aware of Turkey’s human rights failings — just as it was of Libya’s — yet it again appears ready to set values aside in a quest to resolve its refugee crisis.

In a recent membership progress report, the EU criticized Ankara’s interference in its justice system and Turkish government pressure on the media. Just this Thursday, two more opposition journalists were jailed in Turkey.

Yet the EU plans to designate Turkey a “safe country” for migrants, even as European countries grant asylum to fleeing Turkish nationals.

More than 2 million refugees from Syria live in Turkey, but according to Amnesty International, only around one in 10 are being helped by the government. The rest fend largely for themselves.

Beyond that, Irvina McGowan from Amnesty’s EU office says her organization “has documented cases of people being forcibly returned to Syria and Iraq, having been intercepted by Turkish border guards on their way to Europe. That’s a flagrant violation of international law.”

None of this will stop the EU from reaching into its pockets. The only question is: how deep?

The European Commission has promised Turkey 500,000 euros ($529,000) as part of the 3 billion-euro “refugee facility.”

Member states are balking at their payments, though. Under a plan drawn up by the Commission, Germany would pay more than half a billion euros, Britain just over 400 million and France 386 million.

Greece and Cyprus have been refusing to pay. They have a long running feud with Turkey since it annexed the northern third of the Mediterranean island in response to an Athens-supported coup in 1974.

The Cyprus divide has hampered Turkey’s EU accession talks, which began in 2005 but have been largely on hold in recent years. Nonetheless, the EU has promised to breathe new life into the process, as if past differences might suddenly be set aside.

Other issues are complicating matters. The downing on Tuesday of a Russian warplane by the Turkish military comes as the EU — led by Germany — looks to smooth relations with Moscow.

And prior to taking his summit seat in Brussels, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his freshly-elected government wants to adopt a new constitution. The changes could grant Erdogan sweeping new powers, yet it’s unclear whether this will trouble EU leaders.

Rights groups are dismayed that the Europeans are still too ready to compromise their principles for quick results.

“They’re focusing on trying to enlist countries as border guards while casting a blind eye to the flagrant human rights violations or risks,” McGowan said.

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