BERLIN — The European Union and the Turkish government struck an accord Friday to contain Europe’s largest migrant crisis since World War II, agreeing to a deal that turns Turkey into the region’s refugee camp and leaves untold thousands stranded in a country with a deteriorating record on human rights.
After a day and half of wrangling, European leaders and Turkey hashed out the specifics of a broad agreement announced last week that was the brainchild of the Turks and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Under the deal coming into effect Sunday, virtually all migrants — including Syrians fleeing war — who attempt to enter Europe via the Aegean Sea will be sent back to Turkey.
Donald Tusk, the European Council president, confirmed the deal in a Twitter message referencing European heads of state and governments and the Turkish prime minister: “Now unanimous agreement between all EU HoSG and Turkey’s PM on EU-Turkey Statement.”
Merkel said had this message for migrants after the deal was struck: “If and when you embark on this perilous journey, you now have very little prospect of success. The purpose is to end the business model of the traffickers.”
In exchange for its agreement to the proposal, Turkey gets cash — 6 billion euros, or $6.6 billion — and other incentives, including jump-started talks on its bid for E.U. membership and a conditional promise of visa-free travel for its citizens to Europe. Such gifts are likely to provide a big boost at home to Turkey’s authoritarian president,Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is now in the midst of a major crackdown on domestic dissent.
The deal is logistically complex and filled with contingencies that, if left unmet, could make the bargain fall apart. But the goal, leaders said, is to finally shut down massive illegal migration along a route that ran from the battlefields of the Middle East through Turkey to Europe and through which a million migrants came to the continent last year.
The Europeans did offer an equivocal pledge to accept a relatively small number of Syrians after legal processing in Turkey. But E.U. countries have the right to reject refugees, and it remained unclear which would take them. No other nationalities, including Iraqis and Afghans, would qualify for sanctuary, and Syrians caught trying to enter illegally would be effectively barred from legal entry.
In striking the accord, the Europeans pitched it as the only way to end “the human suffering” of migrants being exploited by smugglers. But human rights groups dismissed those claims outright, arguing that the deal is a possible violation of international and E.U. law and would probably cause more misery, not less.
More asylum seekers will now be stranded in Turkey, a nation that does not fully honor the Geneva Convention on refugees. European leaders say that Turkey will rapidly strengthen protections as part of the deal — a claim that left many observers dubious.
Even as the agreement was being worked out, Erdogan appeared to belittle European demands. He suggested calls for better human rights in Turkey were hypocritical from the leaders of wealthy countries refusing to take in asylum seekers.
“At a time when Turkey is hosting 3 million migrants, those who are unable to find space for a handful of refugees, who in the middle of Europe keep these innocents in shameful conditions, must first look at themselves,” Erdogan said in a nationally televised speech in Turkey.
Yet in Turkey, where more than 2.7 million Syrians fleeing war already live, rights groups say that many are being badly exploited. Amnesty International says Turkey has also arrested asylum seekers attempting to cross the Aegean, bringing them to detention centers where they have been kept for weeks without access to lawyers or family. Some, the group says, were given the choice to stay in Turkey or return to Syria or Iraq.
“Turkey itself is a human-rights-abusing country,” said Wenzel Michalski, Germany director for Human Rights Watch. “We have worrying news of lawyers, activists and journalist being thrown in prison. They have started a war against the Kurdish, and parts of Turkey are now like a war zone. How does this make Turkey an appropriate country to manage refugees?”
Activists sounded particularly disillusioned with Merkel, who was celebrated in human rights circles after vowing last year that there was “no limit” to how many asylum seekers Germany could take in. But after a million migrants took her up on that offer — and with anti-migrant sentiments growing at home — she has grown increasingly desperate to slash the influx.
“That Merkel was significantly involved in wrapping up this deal is sad and bitter,” said Karl Kopp, a spokesman for the refugee aid group Pro Asyl. “Merkel isn’t the moral leader any longer, not with this deal.”
In addition, critics said, there is no guarantee the plan will work — and it could compel more and more migrants to take even riskier routes. Arrivals via the more dangerous path to Europe via lawless Libya and a wide stretch of sea to Italy appeared to be spiking, with 700 migrants picked up just on Friday.
Even some European leaders conceded that the legality of the new Turkey deal is tricky. And although the plan was set to come into effect on Sunday, E.U. officials acknowledged it could take days or weeks before it is fully in effect.
Under the plan, migrants interdicted in Turkish waters will be forcibly sent back to Turkey. Rejecting asylum seekers without a hearing, however, violates E.U. and international law. For those migrants who make it as far as Greek waters, or even its islands, the E.U. will try to technically comply with international law by offering flash hearings — some supposedly in just a few hours.
But the European plan is based on the assumption that Turkey will be a “safe” country for refugees, so almost all migrants would be expelled to Turkish shores under the argument that it will now be a benign benefactor.
There was no immediate sign of a solution for the more than 40,000 migrants currently stuck in Greece and barred from moving north. Athens was requesting thousands of additional staff from the E.U. to shore up its borders and process what has been an average arrival tally of 2,000 migrants per day.
Europe is, however, pledging to roll out a “one to one” deal on Syrians with Turkey. For every Syrian returned, another would be brought legally by air from Turkey into Europe. Initially, at least, Europe would offer legal slots to at most 72,000. Since the plan is not mandatory, European nations would need to volunteer to take Syrians in. Some countries, including Hungary and Slovakia, have rejected that suggestion outright.
To reach a deal, Europe and Turkey had to wade through sensitive issues, including lingering animosity between the Turks and the Cypriots and Greeks.
In line with Turkish demands, the Europeans agreed to broadened talks with Ankara on Turkey’s bid to become a member of the E.U. But many believe that part of the deal is more political show than reality.
Marc Pierini, a former E.U. ambassador to Ankara, said Europe’s concessions to Turkey are little more than “virtual reality.” The country still has to clear major E.U.-imposed hurdles to earn visa liberalization for its citizens, and Pierini said the Erdogan government does not truly want E.U. membership, because it would have to dial back its autocratic behavior.
But Europe’s concessions to Turkey are nonetheless important symbolic victories for Erdogan on a domestic level, and they reflect his ability to use the refugees as leverage internationally.
“It’s largely a show,” Pierini said. “But the fact that the E.U. is playing that game tells you about the political panic that the refugee crisis has created among leaders in Europe.”
Griff Witte in London contributed to this report.