EU chief sees first consensus on refugee crisis

New figures show a record 1.2 million refugees arrived in the EU in 2015 - double the figure from the year before.

    An average of 1,943 people were still crossing to Greece every day in February [Petros Giannakouris/AP]
    An average of 1,943 people were still crossing to Greece every day in February [Petros Giannakouris/AP]

    EU president Donald Tusk struck an unusually upbeat note on the migrant crisis as Turkey raised the possibility of taking back non-Syrian asylum seekers.

    Wrapping up a whirlwind diplomatic tour with a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday, Tusk predicted an agreement to shut down the western Balkans route that most refugees and migrants have taken into the European Union.

    His prediction ahead of a crucial summit in Brussels on Monday came as new official figures showed a record 1.2 million asylum seekers arrived in the EU in 2015 - more than double the figure from the year before.

     Syria's orphans still haunted by trauma

    "For the first time since the beginning of the migration crisis, I can see a European consensus emerging," Tusk said in an invitation letter to leaders ahead the summit, which will include Turkey.

    He warned success depended largely on securing Turkey's agreement at the summit for the "large-scale" deportation from Greece of economic migrants who do not qualify as refugees and the curbing of the flow of new arrivals.

    Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his government was mulling the possibility of taking back asylum seekers from countries other than Syria.

    "We have started looking at the possibility of re-admitting asylum seekers, notably from Morocco, Pakistan or Afghanistan," he said in a joint press conference in Athens with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias.

    "We already have readmission agreements with Greece, Bulgaria and other countries and we are preparing to sign others."

    Cavusolglu said Greece had submitted 860 requests for Turkey to take people back, "99 percent" of which had been accepted.

    Also on Friday, Slovenia approved legislation toughening conditions for asylum seekers to curb the flow of migrants and to avoid the Alpine state becoming a bottleneck on the migrant route.

    Brussels, meanwhile, unveiled a plan for saving the passport-free Schengen zone, which has been jeopardised by several countries closing their borders in response to the huge influx of humanity from Syria and elsewhere.

    The sheer scale of the crisis was underscored by the latest figures from the EU statistics agency.

    Syrians fleeing the civil war were the largest group of the 1.2 million who entered Europe, numbering nearly 363,000, followed by 178,200 Afghans, and 121,500 Iraqis.

    Separate EU figures showed an average of 1,943 people were still crossing to Greece every day in February, way above what Brussels wants.

    "We need to see the flows from Turkey drastically down soon," EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told a news conference as he unveiled the bloc's new "roadmap" for Schengen.

    The plan calls for the end of temporary border controls and the restoration by the end of 2016 of full free travel across the 26-country Schengen zone.

    Brussels also called for the creation of an EU coastguard force by the summer.

    If Schengen collapses and border controls return it could cost the EU between five billion and 18 billion euros ($5.5-$20bn) a year, Brussels said.

    The crisis now poses an "existential" threat to the EU, challenging its ideals of peace and solidarity that were formed in the ashes of World War II, former European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso told AFP.

     Market for fake refugee passports thrives in Athens

    SOURCE: AFP


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