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25 migrants die as EU seeks Turkish help to slow influx

By AFP - Mar 06,2016 - Last updated at Mar 06,2016

A boat used by refugees and migrants to travel across the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast is seen on a beach, on the Greek island of Lesbos, in this November 21, 2015 file photo (Reuters photo)

BRUSSELS — At least 25 people including children drowned trying to cross the Aegean Sea on Sunday, a day before a summit at which European leaders will urge Turkey to accept "large-scale" deportations of economic migrants from Greece.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said meanwhile the alliance was broadening its new mission in the Aegean to stop migrant smugglers while working more closely with the EU border agency Frontex. 

The International Organisation for Migration said before the latest tragedy that a total of 418 people had died or gone missing already in 2016, most while attempting to reach Greece from Turkey aboard unseaworthy boats.

The Turkish coastguard said that at least 25 migrants, including ten children, perished on Sunday after their wooden boat capsized in the Aegean on the way to Greece. Fifteen migrants were rescued from the boat off the coastal town of Didim.

Turkey is the launch pad for most of the more than one million refugees and migrants who have come to the continent since early 2015.

The European Union's 28 leaders are seeking more cooperation from Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at their talks in Brussels on Monday in order to slow the flow from Turkey to Greece, the main entry point to Europe.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president and summit host, said in his invitation letter that success depended largely on securing Turkey's agreement in Brussels for the "large-scale" readmission from Greece of economic migrants who do not qualify as refugees.

Syrians, who top the influx of people into Europe, are considered genuine refugees requiring admission under international law.

Speaking to reporters at Istanbul airport before leaving for Brussels, Davutoglu said Turkey had taken "important steps" to fulfill its part of a stalled November deal with the EU to curb migrant flows to Europe.

He said there was a decline in numbers, although "not a dramatic decline" because of the mounting violence in Syria's civil war which was causing more people to flee to neighbouring Turkey.

Despite the progress, the EU said too many people were still heading from Turkey to Greece, with nearly 2,000 arriving daily in February, a winter month.

In preparation for the summit, Davutoglu was to meet late Sunday with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, which holds the current rotating EU presidency, a diplomat told AFP.

Following their lunch Monday with Davutoglu in Brussels, EU leaders are to meet by themselves.

Greece bracing for more migrants 

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramapoulos said Saturday that Greece — already struggling with a buildup of 30,000 migrants — was expected to receive "another 100,000" by the end of March.

EU leaders will also try to increase aid for Greece which has seen non-EU the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and EU countries on the western Balkans route virtually shut their borders, trapping asylum seekers desperate to head north to wealthy Germany and Scandinavia.

Brussels unveiled Friday a plan to restore by the end of the year the full functioning of Europe's cherished passport-free Schengen zone after the series of border closures. 

It was timed with calls for not only better cooperation from Turkey but also the creation of an EU coastguard force by the summer and help for Greece to strengthen its external border.

If Turkey substantially reduces the migrant flow, Rutte has said, Europe could implement a more "ambitious" plan to resettle refugees directly from camps in Turkey, which already host 2.7 million Syrian refugees.

But Davutoglu objected to the sequencing and said both should be done "simultaneously". 

He said he would discuss with his EU counterparts efforts to start within weeks building schools and hospitals for refugees with the three billion euros ($3.3 billion) pledged by Europe under the November deal.

'Wasted money' 

Outspoken Czech President Milos Zeman said the EU should not give Turkey the three billion euros because it was "neither ready nor capable" of helping migrants. "It's only wasted money," Zeman told TV Prima.

In its report, the commission urged Turkey to fulfill other terms of the November deal and "take decisive action against migrant smuggling" by stepping up police work, coast guard patrols and cooperation with NATO.

Turkey on Wednesday denied claims it was blocking the NATO anti-smuggling mission, launched last month, after a Western diplomat said the Turks had barred alliance vessels recently from Turkish waters. 

 

And NATO's Stoltenberg gave no sign there was a problem when he said the mission's "activity will now be expanded to take place also in territorial waters”.

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