The Netherlands is working with some EU members on a plan to send migrants back to Turkish soil in exchange for giving asylum to up to 250,000 others already hosted by Turkey, a top Dutch politician said Thursday.
All migrants arriving through the Greek islands would be sent back to Turkey, Diederik Samsom, parliamentary leader of the coalition Labour Party (PvdA), told a Dutch daily in an interview.
They would be dealt with under UN agreements for handling refugees, Samsom told the respected Volkskrant daily.
In exchange EU nations would take in up to 250,000 people already in Turkey, he said, adding Turkey would be labelled “a safe third country.”
Samsom did not specify how many of the migrants who reached Europe’s shores last year would be sent back under the proposed plan.
The Netherlands currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, and Samsom said the scheme had Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s support.
But it quickly came under fire from rights groups for abandoning those fleeing conflict and persecution.
A spokesman for Rutte did not confirm or deny the existence of a plan, but cautioned there was a difference between a member of parliament “and the position and responsibility of the Dutch government.”
“As holder of the presidency the Netherlands is working hard to reach a common solution,” Rutte’s spokesman Paul Van Nunen told AFP.
“Therefore the influx must be stemmed and resettlement within Europe must improve,” he said.
Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is the majority partner in the ruling coalition with Labour.
A spokesman for the European Commission told AFP that any such plan could run counter to the Geneva Convention and EU policy.
“If someone enters the territory of the EU or presents himself at the border of a member state and requests asylum we will never turn them away and we will always proceed,” the commission spokesman said.
– ‘Bartering in human lives’ –
Amnesty International criticised it as “morally bankrupt” and said it could amount to “illegal push-backs under international law”.
“A large-scale resettlement scheme for refugees from Turkey to the EU is a good idea, but making it conditional on the swift return of those crossing the border irregularly is tantamount to bartering in human lives,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s Europe and central Asia director.
Samsom said the scheme would be voluntary, adding “mandatory quotas do not work” after the EU drew up a plan late last year to share out the refugees among all its members.
The proposal has been under consideration since December and Samsom said he had been working with social democrat parties in about 10 countries, including Austria, Germany, and Sweden.
The EU is under pressure to resolve its worst migrant crisis since World War II with a million refugees having arrived on its shores in 2015.
Rutte warned last week the 28-nation bloc only had about six to eight weeks to find a solution with the imminent arrival of spring, meaning numbers would likely spike again.