BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union aims to rehouse thousands of asylum-seekers from Greece in the coming months, officials said on Thursday as EU ministers wrestled with concerns about the legality of a new plan to force migrants back to Turkey.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the member of the executive European Commission who handles migration, told reporters at a meeting of national interior ministers that at least 6,000 people a month should be relocated to other member states under a scheme which has moved only about 900 hundred people so far.
Avramopoulos noted a recent acceleration in relocations under the system which has divided EU governments as some refuse to take in refugees, most of whom are from Syria and Iraq, though he acknowledged the target was ambitious.
Some 35,000 people have been stranded in Greece since Austria and states on the route to Germany began closing borders, barring access to migrants hoping to follow more than a million who reached northern Europe last year. EU officials said that blockage appeared to have made more asylum seekers ask for relocation rather than try to make their own way northward.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, under electoral pressure at home after opening Germany’s doors to a million Syrians, has pressed EU partners to share the load. But few are keen and critics say many of those rehoused elsewhere will head for Germany anyway.
On Monday, Merkel pushed EU leaders to pencil a surprise deal she brokered with Ankara to halt the flow to Greece by returning to Turkey anyone arriving on the Greeks islands. But legal details are still being worked out for an EU summit next week and many governments are still skeptical of the scheme.
The top United Nations human rights official said it could mean illegal “collective and arbitrary expulsions”. EU ministers also voiced unease at the price of Ankara’s cooperation, notably an accelerated process to ease visa rules for Turks by June and revive negotiations on Turkey’s distant EU membership hopes.
“I ask myself if the EU is throwing its values overboard,” said Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, whose government has led a push to seal off Greece from the north as an alternative to relying on Turkey to stop migrants leaving.
She noted the seizure of an opposition newspaper in Turkey three days before it presented EU leaders with the draft deal, under which Europeans will take one Syrian direct from Turkey for every compatriot who is detained and sent back from Greece.
Human rights concerns also pose problems for EU lawyers trying to tie up the package by the March 17-18 summit, notably because to despatch people at speed back to Turkey relies on an assessment that Turkey is a “safe” country for them to be in.
An EU definition of such a state includes a reference to the Geneva Convention on refugees, to which Turkey does not fully comply, leaving legal experts in Brussels hunting a solution.
“It will be very difficult to arrive at something legally sound and implementable before the summit,” an EU official said.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that Greece and Turkey might have to pass new legislation.
The conundrum highlights how far the EU is willing to go to win Turkey’s help on the crisis, which poses security risks and plays into the hands of right-wing populists in the bloc.
Asked about how much force might be used to deport people who have risked their lives and spent large sums to reach Europe, Avramopoulos said there could be “no push-back methods”.
Klaas Dijkhoff, the Dutch minister who chaired the meeting, said the mix of expulsion and legal resettlement should deter smuggling and help Turkey: “We have to show that it doesn’t pay to use a trafficker and come to Europe in an illegal way and we have to show Turkey we are not leaving them with all the work.”
But ministers also discussed a need to prepare for people turning to other routes, including by sea to Italy from Albania or Libya. The death rate last year on the route to Italy from North Africa, based on data from the International Organization for Migration, was nearly one in 20, compared with less than one in 1,000 between Turkey and Greece.
Nonetheless, three Afghan children, one an infant of six months, were among five people drowned off Lesbos on Thursday as people continue to risk the trip before a Turkey-EU deal bites.
EU officials acknowledge that deterring people who have shown such desperation to reach Europe will be difficult - and deporting them back to Turkey will be tough: “I don’t know how to do it,” said one. “It could get very ugly.”
Additional reporting by Tom Koerkemeier; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Dominic Evans