EU Pleads With Turkey to Halt Refugees as Syrian War Worsens

  • Europe lacks power 'to tell Turks what to do,' Asselborn says
  • Russian-backed Syrian offensive sends thousands fleeing north

European Union foreign ministers pleaded with Turkey to shelter refugees from the Middle East as the collapse of rebel positions in Syria threatened to unleash a new exodus.

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

EU officials said that they have little leverage over Turkey, even after releasing 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) in aid to help the government in Ankara house, feed and find jobs for people fleeing from Syria.

The Es-Selam Border Gate at the Turkish-Syrian border on Feb. 5
The Es-Selam Border Gate at the Turkish-Syrian border on Feb. 5
Photographer: Mustafa Sultan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“We have powers to do things in Europe, but unfortunately we don’t have the power to tell the Turks what to do,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told reporters at an EU meeting in Amsterdam on Saturday.

A Russian-backed offensive by Syrian government troops drove throngs of people out of Aleppo, a rebel stronghold, adding to the numbers en route to Europe after more than 1 million arrived last year.

Turkey has already let in 5,000 people escaping Aleppo, “and another 50,000-55,000 are on their way,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in Amsterdam.

Political Upheaval

The refugee crisis has led to political upheaval in Europe, compounding the effects of the lingering debt crisis. It has hastened the rise of anti-foreigner parties in eastern and northern Europe and cast doubt on the continent-wide preeminence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Deserted by many European allies and facing criticism from her own political camp for an overly welcoming stance, Merkel travels to Ankara on Monday to meet Turkish leaders. On Saturday, she revived talk of the EU bringing in migrants directly from Turkey under a national quota system.

“We need to be prepared, if we want to stop illegal migration or human trafficking, to take on legal allotments of refugees and to take up our end of the bargain,” Merkel said in her weekly podcast from Berlin.

While diplomacy to halt the Syrian fighting pits Russia against the U.S., the European ministers in Amsterdam met with officials from Turkey and western Balkan countries to get to grips with migrants trekking north.

More than 50,000 people made it to Europe in January, ten times as many as a year earlier. Turkey disputed the charge that it has been inactive, with Cavusoglu saying the numbers are ebbing and reports to the contrary are “manipulation in the media in the European capitals.”

Visa Requirements

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini credited Turkey with progress in at least two areas: offering work permits to Syrians and imposing visa requirements on travelers from elsewhere to prevent them from slipping into the refugee streams out of Turkey.

While appealing for “European” solutions, EU governments have largely resorted to national ones. Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Austria are among the countries that have temporarily reimposed identity checks at inner-European borders, jeopardizing the passport-free travel system that unites 26 countries.

As the first EU country on the route from Turkey, Greece -- still reeling from debt and recession -- says it is doing all it can to house and register refugees so they can be dispersed across Europe under a controversial relocation program.

Macedonian Border

Hungary, one of the fiercest opponents of the relocation program, accused Greece of waving refugees through and said the EU has to halt them at the border of Macedonia, a non-EU country on the route from Greece to richer countries north of the Alps.

“The EU is defenseless from the south,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said.

Caught in the middle are countries like Macedonia and Serbia. Europe can’t let them become a “parking lot” for refugees, said Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner in charge of ties with the region.

Austria, which imposed a cap on refugees last month, called for an EU police mission in the Aegean Sea to deport refugees who reach Greece back to Turkey. Austria also urged EU patrols at Greece borders with Bulgaria and Macedonia, forcing the government in Athens to deal with the consequences.

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