EU greenlights major funding plan for refugees in Turkey

BRUSSELS — European Union leaders greenlighted plans on Friday to give Turkey another 3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) over the next several years to continue providing assistance to Syrian refugees on its territory and to help the country boost border controls.

“It’s about additional funds of 3 billion euros, then afterwards also funds for Lebanon and Jordan,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters. She said the plan, drawn up by the EU’s executive branch, “will soon be formally endorsed.”

Well over 1 million migrants entered the EU in 2015, many of them fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq. The arrivals through Turkey overwhelmed facilities in the Greek islands, and sparked one of the EU’s biggest-ever political crises.

To persuade Turkey to stop people leaving its territory, the 27-nation bloc offered the country 6 billion euros for Syrian refugees and the prospect of fast-track EU membership talks and visa-free travel in Europe for its citizens. Arrivals quickly dropped to a relative trickle, and the EU is keen to update the arrangement.

Membership talks are at a standstill, and Turkey has still not fulfilled several criteria to secure visa-free travel, but the commission has handed over most of the funds and will pay the rest as contracts are completed. Separately, it is providing a further half a billion euros for refugees there this year.

Turkey is estimated to now host around 3.7 million refugees from the conflict in Syria. Lebanon and Jordan are also sheltering hundreds of thousands each. But Turkey is also a source of great concern for the EU, particularly disputed energy exploration work in the east Mediterranean that had heightened tensions with EU member states Greece and Cyprus.

In a working paper prepared for the summit, seen by The Associated Press, the commission said the support “has been highly effective and efficient.” It proposed that “a further 3 billion euros from the EU budget shall be dedicated until 2024 to support actions in Turkey.”

It said that “in programming the actions under this package, will gradually move from humanitarian priorities to socio-economic support and development. This will include funding for migration management and border control, notably at Turkey’s eastern border.”

Merkel said the EU will continue to work on improving a customs arrangement it has with Turkey providing favorable tariffs on certain goods. “Of course, we expect further constructive behavior from Turkey. We have seen an improvement of the situation in the Mediterranean Sea,” she said.

An additional 2.2 billion euros would be spent to help refugees and displaced people in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, according to the commission plan.