The European Union and Turkey reached a deal on Friday to return new asylum seekers who arrive in Greece from Turkey, a significant step in the bloc’s effort to deal with the migrant crisis that has roiled the Continent.
The leaders of the 28 nations in the bloc and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey approved the accord after two days of talks and over strenuous objections from humanitarian groups, who said the deal violated international law on the treatment of refugees.
The effectiveness of the plan, which will begin on Sunday, was also unclear given that there are many alternative routes into Europe.
The deal calls for Turkey to receive about $6.6 billion in aid to help organizations look after the nearly three million migrants already in Turkey, promises of visa-free travel for its citizens in most of Europe, and the eventual resumption of negotiations with Turkey on membership in the European Union.
The European Union also will resettle one Syrian from a camp in Turkey in exchange for each Syrian who used an irregular route to reach Greece.
Tens of thousands of people have been living in squalid conditions in Greece on the border with Macedonia, which has denied entry to the migrants. The deal reached Friday on sending back migrants to Turkey applies only to new migrants who have arrived in Greece and excludes those who are already there.
The accord with Turkey represents a moment of painful compromise for Europe. Turkey has taken an authoritarian turn under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Europe was forced to accept some Turkish demands to gain its cooperation in stopping the large numbers of people using the Aegean Sea to reach Greece.
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Confirmation of the deal came from Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, who oversees summit meetings. There was “unanimous agreement between” all leaders with the Turkish prime minister, Mr. Tusk wrote on his Twitter account.
More than a million migrants arrived on European shores last year, and there has been no sign of a letup. Almost 155,000 people had arrived in Europe already this year as of Thursday, the vast majority of them in Greece, according to the International Organization for Migration, and the numbers could rise as the weather turns warmer.
Putting this massive and delicate operation into effect over the course of a single weekend will be difficult. European officials wanted to quickly put the measure in place to prevent a rush of migrants seeking to reach Greece before the deal goes into effect.
European officials have struggled to develop a coherent response to the migrant crisis, and the agreement that was struck on Friday is complicated by the fact that Greece currently lacks the infrastructure to ensure asylum seekers are given a fair hearing before they are sent back to Turkey, according to European officials.
“The weakest link in this agreement is Greece,” said Mujtaba Rahman, the director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. It “does not have the financial or administrative bandwidth to implement this agreement, so it will need substantial support from Europe – far more than is currently being talked about.”
The agreement was welcomed by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who helped develop the plan at a time when much of the Continent and a substantial portion of her own country had turned against her policy of taking in almost unlimited numbers of migrants. But even she was cautious about its prospects.
“Let me be very clear: I am under no illusion whatsoever that what we agreed today will not meet with setbacks — there are after all enormous logistical challenges that we have to contend with,” Ms. Merkel said at a news conference.
One of the main goals of the deal was to dissuade migrants from attempting the trip on the Aegean Sea, Ms. Merkel said. “When you embark on this perilous journey you’re not only risking life and limb but you have very little prospects for success,” she said.
She emphasized that refugees arriving on Greek islands after Sunday “will not be simply returned” but will be subject to “a procedure that looks at each and every refugee individually,” though she acknowledged that would be a big task requiring help from European officials.
Ms. Merkel also had a message for the migrants currently in Greece who would not be subject to the terms of the new deal but could eventually be moved to other parts of the European Union if they qualify for asylum.
“There are better possibilities for shelter that the Greek government has provided now for these refugees and this is why my plea to the refugees there, in Idomeni, is that they should leave this place,” she said, referring to the Greek city on the border with Macedonia where many migrants have set up a camp.
The negotiations hinged on incentives for Turkey, which is not a European Union member, to take on the job of housing more migrants, many of whom are fleeing the bloody conflict in Syria.
A sticking point was ensuring that Cyprus did not veto a deal. It needed reassurances that there would be no immediate resumption of negotiations on European Union membership for Turkey, which has occupied the northern part of Cyprus since 1974.
As the talks stretched into Friday morning, Mr. Erdogan intervened from Ankara with a warning not to press his government too hard to provide better conditions for the far larger numbers of migrants currently in Turkey.
“At a time when Turkey is hosting three million, those who are unable to find space for a handful of refugees, who in the middle of Europe keep these innocents in shameful conditions, must first look at themselves,” Mr. Erdogan said in a speech broadcast on television.
Although the deal represents a meaningful step in the effort to bring the migrant crisis under control, it is unclear whether migrants will look for other options, rendering the agreement as just a temporary fix.
“The bigger headache will be when the smugglers start rerouting migrants to Italy through Libya because you’ve got a failed state there so no real government to make a deal with,” said Guntram Wolff, the director of Bruegel, a research organization in Brussels.
The debate over how to deal with the migrant crisis has divided Europe, and the search for an agreement gained new urgency this month after four countries — Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia — effectively shut down the route used by many migrants as they move on from Greece.
Most of the migrants hoped to reach Germany, but the closing of the so-called Balkan route left increasing numbers of people trapped because they could not leave Greece, had no desire to stay and either could not or would not return home.
Passage into Macedonia was being limited to a small number of Syrians and Iraqis each day, while people from other countries, including Afghanistan, were being treated as economic migrants and therefore ineligible to apply for asylum.
NATO has also stepped into the crisis in announcing that it would patrol the Aegean Sea, with a focus on monitoring the area and sharing information with Greece and Turkey to allow them to stop human smugglers. Jens Stoltenberg, the Atlantic alliance’s secretary general, said last month that NATO forces would not turn back boats, but that crews would live up to their “responsibility to assist” if they encountered migrants in distress.