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EU looks to refugee-laden Turkey to ease its migrant burden

Migrants crowd a truck bringing donated firewood at the northern Greek border station of Idomeni, Sunday. (Vadim Ghirda / Associated Press)
Migrants crowd a truck bringing donated firewood at the northern Greek border station of Idomeni, Sunday. (Vadim Ghirda / Associated Press)
Lorne Cook Associated Press

BRUSSELS – European Union leaders will be looking to boost aid to Greece as the Balkan migrant route is effectively sealed, using Monday’s summit as an attempt to restore unity among the 28 member nations after months of increasing bickering and go-it-alone policies, according to a draft statement Sunday.

The leaders will also try to persuade Turkey’s prime minister to slow the flow of migrants traveling to Europe and take back thousands who don’t qualify for asylum.

In a draft summit statement produced Sunday and seen by the Associated Press, the EU leaders will conclude that “irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkans route are coming to an end; this route is now closed.” Because of this, the statement added that “the EU will stand by Greece in this difficult moment and will do its utmost to help manage the situation.”

“This is a collective EU responsibility requiring fast and efficient mobilization,” it said in a clear commitment to end the bickering. It said aid to Greece should center on urgent humanitarian aid as well as managing its borders and making sure that migrants not in need of international protections are quickly returned to Turkey.

The statement will be assessed by the 28 leaders after they have met with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Ankara is central to easing Europe’s refugee pressures. More than 2,000 people arrive daily from Turkey to Greece, where many have been stranded as countries on the main migrant route through the Balkans are aiming to stop them from moving north.

The bloc has offered several sweeteners to get Turkish authorities to crack down on migrant movements. Some $3.3 billion will be made available for Syrian refugees. Turkey’s long-coveted EU membership process is being sped up, as are moves to ease EU visa requirements. Summit meetings like these are also part of the package.

Ahead of the summit, the European Commission trumpeted the availability of tens of millions of euros to help Syrian schoolchildren and provide food aid. It said a new “road map” on visa liberalization for Turkey had also been submitted.

However, Turkey has a huge migrant challenge of its own, as host to more than 2 million people who fled the conflict in Syria, and the returns on the European investments have been limited so far. Many complain that far too many people still cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, adding to the 850,000 people who entered Greece that way last year.

The United Nations’ refugee agency called on Friday for 400,000 Syrians in Turkey to be resettled around the world to ease the country’s burden. So far it remains to be seen if any countries are willing to offer their assistance. Only 7,500 people were resettled in 2015.

After regular calls for Ankara to do more, the commission announced on Tuesday that Greece was finally in the process of returning 308 migrants not in need of international protection to Turkey.

NATO is helping too. The alliance announced Sunday that it was expanding its mission to help choke off the smuggling of migrants into Europe by deploying warships in Greek and Turkish waters, reinforcing its flotilla and deepening cooperation with the EU’s Frontex border agency.

Many of the preferred destinations for migrants, like Germany and Scandinavia, have reintroduced border controls, threatening the future of the Schengen passport-free area so vital to trade and travel. Croatia signaled Friday that it’s ready to deploy the army.

Ahead of the summit, between 13,000 and 14,000 were camped at the Greek-Macedonia border, clinging to the hope that they might be allowed to move north.

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