Is Turkey a safe place for illegal migrants? The UN warns the answer may be 'no.' Yet the EU needs to say 'yes' before it can go ahead with a plan that would have Turkey take back all illegal migrants landing in Greece.
With the sun shining bright from a Brussels sky that had been heavy with clouds and rain for weeks on end, EU interior ministers meeting on Thursday appeared set on echoing a new sunny mood. A "positive climate" had pervaded talks, said Italy's Angelino Alfano, adding that there had been a "certain optimism."
EU member states – at least some of them – are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. As part of a deal which EU leaders and Turkey discussed earlier this week, Turkey would take back all illegal migrants making their way across the Aegean Sea to Greece. For every Syrian sent back to Turkey, the EU would accept one Syrian from Turkey.
That, the EU hopes, would effectively end the unprecedented influx of migrants that has seen more than one million people arrive on European shores and make their way across the Balkans to reach preferred destinations like Germany and Sweden.
Serious human rights objections
Yet, as interior ministers were meeting to pave the way for EU leaders to agree to the deal next week, others were taking a dim view of the plan. The UN human rights chief said he was seriously concerned, warning that "collective expulsions" such as those planned under the EU-Turkey deal are "illegal." The fact that he intends to discuss the matter in Brussels ahead of next week's summit indicates the UN doesn't want to just let the issue slide.
So far, the EU says the plan is legal – if Turkey can be considered a "safe third country." In this case, EU rules allow governments to reject asylum applications of those who have travelled through such a "safe" country.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the person in charge of the EU's migration policy, pointed out that Turkey would have to fulfill certain criteria. It could only be considered a safe third country if none of the migrants sent back to Turkey risked persecution there, if none were pushed back into war zones, and if Turkey granted them the right to request refugee status.
But the EU commissioner seemed to be one of the few voices reminding the ministers of these requirements. For Germany's Thomas de Maiziere, they appeared to be minor details: "I am convinced that all legal issues will be resolved satisfactorily by the summit next week," he said.
Unhappiness about visa-free travel
Questions of international law aside, some member countries posed the question of whether the price to be paid for taking Turkey up on its offer was too high. Austria's interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner feared that European values such as press freedom would "go overboard" by closing the deal with Turkey.
For its part, France said it has problems with lifting the current visa-restrictions for Turks travelling to Europe – another part of the proposed deal. The French government fears the move would give a boost to nationalists ahead of presidential elections next year. And it has support among other politicians, such as the leader of the conservative group in the European Parliament.
But on this count, too, Germany's de Maiziere saw no major obstacles. Yes, certainly, Turkey had to fulfill the criteria for removing visa restrictions, he said. However, "it is not up to individual member states to determine whether these criteria are being met, and Turkey is optimistic it can meet them by the 1st of May." If Turkey really wanted this, de Maiziere added, "maybe there is a chance it will actually achieve it."
Not all questions answered before summit
Yet there is also a practical catch to the plan, because in return for being allowed to send all migrants that arrive in Greece back to Turkey, the EU would open up possibilities for a small number of Syrians in Turkey to come to Europe legally. "That requires criteria according to which these Syrians are selected, and it requires clarity on who would be in charge of the procedure" de Maiziere admitted, "and it also requires re-distributing these people among EU member states." Would this be dealt with on a bilateral basis, or possibly involve the UN refugee agency? Many questions remain unanswered.
Italy fears the migrants might pursue new routes to access Europe - ways which would lead them to Italian shores
In this regard, de Maiziere and his colleagues had little to offer. But with the route across the Balkans closed, and more than ten thousand refugees stuck in deplorable conditions at the Greek-Macedonian border, the EU is under pressure to remedy this situation. The proposed deal with Turkey seems to be the only solution they can think of - and when the ministers turned to the next item on their agenda, the distinct impression remained that the EU seems hell-bent on pushing the deal with Turkey through as fast as possible, with all legal, moral and practical objections brushed aside.