73ºF

Turkey says EU must stop stringing it along on migrant deal

ANKARA – The European Union should stop “stringing Turkey along” over helping out with the millions of migrants on its territory, the country's foreign minister said Tuesday, a day after the two sides agreed to review a 4-year-old deal aimed at stemming refugee flows to Europe.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the EU must take "sincere" steps to help Turkey manage the flow of migrants, including finding ways to ensure Syrian refugees can return home.

The minister spoke a day after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a meeting with top EU officials in Brussels. The two sides agreed to review their 2016 deal on migrants.

The meeting was called after thousands of migrants massed on Turkey's border with Greece, following the Turkish government's decision to open its borders to migrants wanting to cross into Europe. Greece has deployed riot police and border guards to prevent the crossings, sparking clashes between migrants and Greek security forces.

Erdogan has demanded that Europe shoulder more of the burden of caring for Syrian refugees on Turkish territory — thought to number more than 3.5 million. Turkey is accusing the EU of not meeting its obligations under the 2016 agreement, including failing to pay money promised to Turkey to stem the flow of migrants to Europe.

Following the talks in Brussels late Monday, European Council President Charles Michel said teams headed by Cavusoglu and EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borell, 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."

"We are ready for a constructive study ... We expect sincerity from the EU. The era of stringing Turkey along is over," Cavusoglu told state-run Anadolu Agency.

Cavusoglu said the sides would work toward "updating" the Turkey-EU deal in line with recent developments, including the situation in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, where a Syrian government offensive has driven thousands of Syrians toward the border with Turkey.

The 2016 agreement isn't “about the EU giving money to Turkey to keep the refugees," Cavusoglu said. “It comprises several issues from visa-free travel to ensuring the voluntary return of refugees."

The minister said the sides would try to draft a "road map" in time for a EU summit on March 26.

The Greek side of the border was generally quiet Tuesday, and authorities were using the lull to reinforce barriers to prevent crossing attempts.

Greek authorities were reinforcing around 40 areas of the border with barbed wire, including along parts of the banks of the Evros River, known as the Maritsa in Turkish, which runs along most of the frontier between the two countries.

Charis Thocharides, head of the village of Pythio, said residents were worried that the wave of migrants that used to cross from Turkey to Greek islands would now start crossing through their region of the land border.

“It’s a bit of a psychological issue,” he said, adding that villagers could hear the disturbances coming from the border at night when Greek authorities were trying to push back migrants attempting to cross. “They used to feel safe and now suddenly they’ve started to think of various things.”

Greek authorities said there had been 52 arrests between Monday morning and Tuesday morning, including 31 by the coast guard in the Evros sea region. They said they had thwarted 963 attempts to cross the border in the same time period.

Erdogan, meanwhile, told a group of journalists on his return to Turkey that he is set to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Istanbul on March 17, state-run Anadolu Agency reported. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson may also attend.

Erdogan also said that during his talks with in Brussels, EU leaders acknowledged that Turkey had fulfilled its obligations under the 2016 agreement and the EU had “moved slowly" to meet its responsibilities.

“We could begin a new process with the EU," Anadolu quoted Erdogan as saying.

Under the 2016 agreement, the EU offered Turkey up to 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) 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.

The EU insists it is disbursing the funds. It has also accusing Erdogan of “blackmail” for waving migrants through to Europe late last month after dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed in fighting in northern Syria.

Many migrants who attempted to cross the border have reported mistreatment by Greek authorities. Greece has denied the accusations.

Erdogan alleged that several migrants have died and vowed to make Greece account for actions he said amount to “murder," Anadolu reported.

___

Associated Press writer Costas Kantouris contributed from Phytio, Greece.