The EU’s controversial migrant deal with Turkey looked in renewed doubt on Monday amid accusations that Turkey is “cherry-picking” skilled Syrian refugees while sending the “sick and illiterate” to Europe.
A Turkish government official told the Daily Telegraph they had the ‘right’ to choose who stays in Turkey.
Angela Merkel held talks with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, in Istanbul today in a bid to shore up the deal, which she personally negotiated.
But she was unable to quell growing concern across the EU at Mr Erdogan’s handling of the deal.
Mrs Merkel admitted agreement on visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens, a key part of the deal, was in jeopardy.
And she expressed “deep concern” over moves by Mr Erdogan’s government to strip MPs of immunity from prosecution in a crackdown on the opposition.
The talks took place amid accusations by EU officials that Turkey is using the deal to send ill and unqualified Syrian refugees to Europe while blocking the exit applications of skilled professionals.
Under the deal agreed in March, the EU will resettle one Syrian refugee from Turkey in exchange for each Syrian deported from Greece.
At an internal EU meeting in Brussels last week, a representative of Luxembourg claimed Turkey was sending “serious medical cases” and blocking those more likely to integrate into European societies.
The UN refugee agency usually decides who is eligible for resettlement, but the Turkish authorities have reportedly excluded Syrian doctors, engineers and academics from the scheme.
A Turkish government official told the Telegraph it was the country’s “right” to choose who remains, as it is hosting more than three million Syrian refugees.
So far some 400 asylum-seekers have been returned to Turkey and 177 refugees resettled in Europe, but 8,500 asylum-seekers still in Greece are believed to be covered by the deal.
The latest row will only make it harder for Mrs Merkel to defend the deal, under which Turkey is supposed to get visa-free travel and billions in aid in return for stopping the migrants.
The German chancellor has come under fire for putting the security of Europe’s borders in the hands of Mr Erdogan’s repressive regime.
“I’ve made clear in the conversation today that I think we need an independent judicial system, we need independent media and we need a strong parliament in Turkey,” Mrs Merkel said after her talks with Mr Erdogan on Monday.
“And of course, the decision to withdraw immunity from every fourth lawmaker in the Turkish parliament is something that causes deep concern. I’ve made this clear to the Turkish president.”
She admitted agreement on visa-free travel by the original deadline of July 1 was unlikely, and insisted Turkey will have to meet all of the EU’s criteria, including reform of anti-terror laws.
“We must do everything that we can to continue discussions, as it is unlikely that by July 1 certain things will be in place,” she said.
“In other words, there will be no visa exemption if the criteria are not fulfilled.”
Other EU leaders have gone much further in their criticism. Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament, described the decision to strip opposition MPs of immunity as a “stunning rejection of the values of Europe”.
Mr Erdogan’s policies “don’t just make negotiations on Turkish EU membership difficult, they make it virtually impossible,” Mr Schulz said.
Mrs Merkel is also facing political pressure at home, with her coalition government deeply divided over the deal.
Horst Seehofer, the state prime minister of Bavaria and chief critic of her “open-door” refugee policy, spoke out against the deal, saying “The ends don’t justify the means”.
But Turkey is refusing to back down. Yigit Bulut, an adviser to Mr Erdogan, warned that if the EU failed to live up to its promises Turkey would suspend the deal.
“Let them continue to apply double standards, let them continue not to keep their promises for Turkish citizens,” Mr Bulut said.
“But they should know that if they maintain this attitude Turkey will take some very radical decisions very soon.”
Mr Erdogan said yesterday Turkey has not received enough support from the international community in tackling the Syrian refugee crisis.
“The current system falls short… the burden is shouldered only by certain countries, everyone should assume responsibility from now on,” he said.
Istanbul is currently hosting the world’s first-ever global humanitarian summit, where politicians from 175 countries have gathered to come up with a way to deal with what is the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.