The number of migrants arriving in Europe through the Western Balkan routes has dropped considerably as a result of EU action, European Council president Donald Tusk said on Wednesday.
Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the European Council president he defended the EU's response to the refugee crisis.
He said that while 70,000 migrants had arrived in Europe in January, this had dropped to 50,000 in February and 30,000 last month. So far in April, about 1,000 migrants have arrived, he said.
“Imagine how many would have come in April if we hadn’t undertaken action,” he told MEPs at the plenary session.
As MEPs held their first formal discussion on the controversial EU-Turkey agreement agreed last month, Mr Tusk said the new agreement excluded any kind of collective expulsion, by ensuring that every migrant in Europe would be treated individually.
He said there was no “Holy Grail” in terms of finding a solution to the refugee crisis. “The deal with Turkey is not perfect and we are fully aware of its risks and weaknesses,” he said. “We did everything we could to ensure that the agreement respects human dignity but I am conscious of the fact that everything depends on how it will be implemented.”
Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Alde group in the parliament, was among the majority of MEPs who criticised the deal, arguing that the scheme served to push refugees to take alternative, more dangerous routes.
""People say this deal works because the influx has diminished. Yes, the numbers coming from Turkey to Greece have gone from 1,700 a day to 50. But in the meantime, 2,152 people tried to reach the Italian coast."
Speaking during the debate, Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly said while there were humanitarian concerns about the deal, control of the EU's external borders was necessary to "bring order to a sea of chaos" as migrants try to reach Europe. He also noted that the €6 million in EU aid pledged to Turkey would be used to support migrants in Turkey.
Since the EU-Turkey deal came into effect on April 4th, 325 migrants have been deported from Greece to Turkey, while 79 Syrians have been resettled to Europe directly from Turkey under the ‘one for one’ scheme.
Human rights groups have criticised the agreement, raising concerns about the status of Turkey as a ‘safe country’ under international law.
EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said that the Commission would publish a formal assessment of the scheme next week.
Addressing the Parliament during the debate, the Greek commissioner defended the EU’s engagement with Turkey, in the wake of concerns expressed by a number of MEPs about human rights and democratic standards in the country. He said the EU’s agreement with Turkey was “an agreement to address an issue in a joint way. Both Europe and Turkey are under large pressure. We are confronted with the same challenges... cooperation is necessary”.
He said the opening of chapters in Turkey’s accession process was “not a concession on our basic principles and values of European democracy.”
“On the contrary it is important for Turkey to come closer to the European standards on all issues [...]It’s in Europe’s interest to have a democratic and stable Turkey as a neighbour,” he said.
Biggest crisis since WWII
More than 1.1 million refugees entered the EU last year in the biggest refugee crisis facing Europe since the second World War.
As the European Commission confirmed that only 1,145 people have been relocated from Greece and Italy under a relocation plan agreed last year which aims to relocate 160,000 migrants across the EU, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said that more solidarity was needed between EU nations in dealing with the migration challenge.
Pointing out that smugglers have exploited a patchwork of national rules to “make a fortune from human suffering”, he said that solidarity would be the “guiding light” of the proposed reform of the EU’s asylum system to be published next month.