EU, Turkey to review migrant deal as refugees remain in limbo near Greek border

The European Union and Turkey agreed to review a four-year-old deal on managing migrants and refugees in an effort to settle a dispute that sent thousands of people to the Turkey-Greece border in hopes of reaching Europe, top EU officials said Monday.

Ankara has said it wouldn't adhere to 2016 deal on accommodating migrants

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, is welcomed by European Council President Charles Michel, centre, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the European Council building in Brussels for talks amid a standoff over sharing of responsibility for refugees and migrants. (John Thys, Pool Photo via AP)

The European Union and Turkey agreed to review a four-year-old deal on managing migrants and refugees in an effort to settle a dispute that sent thousands of people to the Turkey-Greece border in hopes of reaching Europe, top EU officials said Monday.

Under the 2016 agreement, the EU offered Turkey up to six billion euros ($9 billion Cdn) in aid for the Syrian refugees it hosts, fast-tracked EU membership and other incentives to stop Europe-bound migrants. The number arriving in Greece from Turkey dropped dramatically after the deal took effect.

After talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Brussels, European Council President Charles Michel said teams headed by the EU foreign policy chief and Turkey's foreign minister would work "in the next days to clarify the implementation of the deal between Turkey and the EU to be certain that we are on the same page."

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that during the talks with Erdogan "there was a clear focus on, 'Let's discuss what is fact. Let's sort out how both sides see the past and how we evaluate the EU-Turkey statement.'"

The Turkish leader left without speaking to the media. Officials from his office described the talks as "productive."

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million refugees from Syria, where its troops are facing off against Russian-backed Syrian government forces. 

Erdogan has accused the EU of not meeting its obligations, including failing to pay money promised to Turkey under the 2016 deal. The EU says it is disbursing the funds but also accused Erdogan of "blackmail" for waving migrants through to Europe late last month after dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed in fighting in northern Syria.

Asked whether Erdogan promised to restart Turkey's efforts to prevent migrants from leaving the country, Michel said, "What's in the statement, and what's in the camp of Turkey has to be fulfilled."

EU countries have rallied behind Greece, which is also a member of NATO, and described it as a "shield" protecting Europe's borders with the outside world.

Earlier, a high-level Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government rules, said the sides would discuss a possible revision of the agreement. It wasn't immediately clear if the review will lead to one.

Erdogan had also been expected to raise concerns over alleged violence by Greek authorities as they push migrants back to Turkey.

Greece has deployed riot police and border guards to repel people and the border area has since seen violent confrontations. On Saturday, youths threw rocks at Greek police and tried to pull down a border fence.

Von der Leyen said that the use of "excessive force" is unacceptable and that security action should be "proportionate," but the EU has generally been unwilling to openly criticize the actions of the police.

Since the end of February, thousands of migrants have headed to points along the Greece border, as Turkey has turned away from an agreement struck with the European Union in 2016. (CBC)

Bumpy relations

Ties between Turkey and the EU soured following a botched coup against Erdogan in July 2016. The EU criticized the scale of Erdogan's post-coup crackdown on dissent and has effectively frozen Turkey's long-stalled bid to join the bloc.

Some EU foreign ministers have criticized Turkey, saying it is using migrants' desperation for political purposes. 

The situation on the Greek-Turkish land border was generally calm on Monday. Greek authorities said in the 24 hours leading up to Monday morning, they had blocked 1,646 attempts to cross the border and arrested two people: one Moroccan and one Egyptian.

There have been no reports of migrants massing at Turkey's other EU border with Bulgaria.

Afghan migrant Keramet kisses his daughter Bahar as they wait in the border city of Edirne, Turkey, near Greece. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

'Threats and blackmail'

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, meanwhile, welcomed Erdogan's visit to Brussels, saying he hoped it would mark "the start of the de-escalation of the crisis."

Speaking in Berlin, where he also met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mitsotakis said "there must be a concrete change in Ankara's policy" if Turkey is to become an ally of the EU in the migration issue once more.

The first step, he said, would be for Erdogan "to immediately withdraw the desperate people he gathered" on the border and to accept back those caught having entered Greece illegally.

"Greece has always … recognized and does recognize that Turkey has a crucial role to play in the management of the migration problem. And it needs Europe's help to do it," Mitsotakis said. "But this cannot happen … under conditions of threats and blackmail, using desperate people as pawns."

Some residents of Greek border regions, including islands near the Turkish coast, have attempted to stop new arrivals themselves. On the island of Lesbos, groups have intimidated aid organizations and journalists, and set up roadblocks to prevent new arrivals from reaching the island's migrant camp.

Thousands of migrants were already in Greece before Turkey announced its borders open, many of them in massively overcrowded camps on Greek islands facing the Turkish coast. Part of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal stipulates new arrivals must remain on the islands pending deportation unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, met with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Berlin on Monday. (Markus Schreiber/The Associated Press)

Germany's coalition government said early Monday the country was willing to "support Greece regarding the difficult humanitarian situation of about 1,000 to 1,500 children on the Greek islands."

The government said Germany could host children in dire need of medical treatment or those who are unattended minors younger than 14, especially girls. It didn't say exactly how many children Germany would take, but said an agreement would be negotiated by a European "coalition of the willing" in coming days.