Turkey seeks closer EU ties in return for help with refugee crisis

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The European Union will Tuesday release a cooperation plan on migration that it has submitted to Turkey in a bid to stem the flow of refugees, amid warnings that more people are getting ready to flee Syria.

“A potential victory of [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad’s regime is more likely today because of Iran and Russia’s engagement in Syria, and will result in the next migratory wave,” EU President Donald Tusk told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

Turkey estimates that another 3 million potential refugees could come from the Syrian city of Aleppo and its neighbourhood, he added.

Europe is already grappling with its largest influx of refugees and migrants since World War II, many of them from war-torn Syria. Neighbouring Turkey has taken in more than 2 million Syrian refugees, but is also the key transit country for those seeking to join the EU.

The 28-country bloc has seen more than 500,000 migrants arrive by sea this year. Over the last nine months, more than 350,000 asylum seekers have left Turkey for Greece, according to EU figures. Only 50,000 were allegedly stopped by the Turkish authorities.

The EU is now hoping to stem the flow by getting Turkey to better control its borders and encouraging people to stay in refugee camps there.

But its bid to secure Ankara’s cooperation is proving contentious, given the spotty human rights record of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and its controversial counter-demands.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday evening submitted an action plan to Erdogan on addressing the refugee crisis, which he said he will release at 3 pm (1300 GMT) in agreement with the Turkish authorities.

Erdogan was wrapping up on Tuesday a two-day visit to Belgium and the EU institutions.

“It is obvious that we need Turkey to protect our external borders,” Juncker told the European Parliament.

“The EU and Turkey have to walk together and have to develop in harmony the same policies for the reception, protection and aftercare of the miserable people who come to us,” he added.

The action plan includes potential joint border patrols at the Turkish-Greek border and measures for the accommodation and integration of refugees in Turkey, according to EU sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The EU could provide “considerable” financial aid for this and the establishment of six reception centres. The implementation of the action plan could also help pave the way for Turkish citizens to gain visa-free access to the EU.

Details are now to be hashed out by leading EU officials and Ankara. The aim is to have a framework ready in time for a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on October 15-16.

Time is pressing for Europe to get a credible handle on its migration crisis, Tusk warned.

“We are slowly becoming witnesses to the birth of a new form of political pressure … in which migratory waves have become a tool, a weapon against neighbours,” he said. “This requires particular sensitivity and responsibility on our side.”

He called on countries such as Hungary, Italy, Slovakia and Greece to sacrifice part of their “interests” to respect EU rules, and for all to avoid extremes such as anti-immigration rhetoric.

After Greece, Italy has faced the second largest-influx of migrants arriving by sea this year. Its coast guard said overnight that 1,830 people were rescued from the Mediterranean in six separate interventions on Monday, also involving Irish and British navy boats.

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