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UN refugee chief 'deeply concerned' by EU-Turkey deal

Under deal questioned by UN, EU would resettle one Syrian refugee from Turkish camps in exchange for each Syrian that Turkey takes from Greece
Children exercise in a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni this week (AFP)

The head of the UN refugee agency on Tuesday said he was "deeply concerned" by a proposed deal between the EU and Ankara to curb the migrant and refugee crisis that would involve people being sent back to Turkey.

"I'm deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law," UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi told the European Parliament.

Lawmakers at the parliament in Strasbourg, France, applauded after he made the comment.

At a summit in Brussels on Monday, European Union leaders in principle backed a Turkish proposal to take back all migrants landing on the overstretched Greek islands. A final decision on the agreement is expected to be decided at a second meeting next week.

Turkey suggested a one-for-one deal under which the EU would resettle one Syrian refugee from camps in Turkey in exchange for every Syrian that Turkey takes from Greece, in a bid to reduce the incentive for people to board boats for Europe.

Turkey is the main launching point for the more than one million migrants and refugees who have made the dangerous crossing to Europe since the start of 2015. It is home to 2.7 million refugees from the war in Syria, more than any other country.

But Grandi said the plan does not offer sufficient guarantees under international law.

He said refugees should only be returned to a country if it could be proved that their asylum application would be properly processed and that they would "enjoy asylum in accordance with accepted international standards and have full access to education, work, health care and if necessary social assistance."

He also called for refugees to be screened before being sent away from Greece "to identify highly at-risk categories that may not be appropriate for return even if the above conditions are met".

Grandi appealed to the international community to share Turkey's burden "more widely," and urged better ways of encouraging refugees not to risk their lives.

"The UNHCR has been calling on states to increase different legal routes for Syrian refugees so they do not have to resort to people smugglers and to dangerous journeys," he said.

The EU insisted the deal would comply with international laws on the treatment of refugees.

"The details that will be hammered out between now and the March European Council (summit) will obviously be in full compliance with both European and international law," European Commission spokesman Alex Winterstein told reporters.

'Game changer'?

Earlier on Monday, EU leaders hailed the outlined agreement with Turkey as a "breakthrough". 

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker also called the plan a "real game changer," insisting that it was "legally feasible" despite questions from rights groups about whether it would breach international laws on the treatment of refugees.

EU sources said the bloc had already identified 70,000 places for Syrians resettled from Turkish camps.

Ankara has proved a difficult partner, failing to honour an earlier $3.3bn deal with the EU in November and continually pushing Turkey's long-stalled EU membership bid.

But Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu surprised EU leaders on Monday by offering the one-for-one deal, a step that would relieve the pressure on debt-hit Athens and the whole of the EU.

For Turkey, perhaps the biggest win was the EU's agreement to push forward to June visa-free travel to the EU's Schengen passport-free area for Turkey's 75 million people, provided that Ankara honours its promises.

He further pushed for the opening of five more "chapters" in Turkey's long-drawn out EU accession process - so far it has only completed one out of more than 30.

Aside from the UNHCR's concerns, securing a deal next week may still be difficult given the deep divisions that the crisis has sown in the EU and also within Turkey. 

The EU insisted the deal would comply with international laws on the treatment of refugees.