The European Union and Turkey agreed Friday on a contentious new deal to stem the flow of migrants across the Aegean Sea, with new arrivals to be returned from Greece to Turkey beginning March 20.
EU President Donald Tusk announced on Twitter that "unanimous agreement" had been reached on the new plan between all 28 EU member states and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, following two days of talks in Brussels.
"A test of implementation starts on Sunday," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite tweeted, while Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas called the deal a "potential game changer."
The plan is the European Union's latest effort to end an uncontrolled surge of migrants and asylum seekers that saw more than 1 million people reach European shores last year. Most crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, aiming to then move on to wealthy northern countries.
The new deal has been lambasted by human rights advocates for a provision that foresees up to 72,000 Syrian asylum seekers being returned from Greece back to Turkey. The EU argues that the move is key to undercut migrant smuggling networks in the Aegean.
In exchange for Ankara's help, the EU is to resettle up to 72,000 Syrian asylum seekers out of Turkey, an EU source said on condition of anonymity.
This new, one-for-one resettlement scheme would be abandoned if the 72,000 threshold is exceeded.
The EU is also expected to promise Turkey a quicker disbursement of 3 billion euros (3.4 billion dollars) in already-promised aid, as well as more financial support on top of that, to help it cope with more than 2 million Syrians it has taken in.
Turkey has also sought visa-free access to the bloc for its citizens by June and progress on the country's long-standing bid for EU membership - demands that had proven controversial within the bloc.
The deal mentions the opening of negotiations on financial and budgetary provisions with Turkey as part of its membership process, the EU source said.
Earlier Friday, Davutoglu insisted that "the refugee issue is not an issue of bargaining but an issue of value – humanitarian values as well as European values."
Human rights advocates, however, have been aghast at the proposed deal, most notably the plan for the swapping of the 72,000 Syrian asylum seekers.
"This is a bitter day for refugees," Guenter Burkhardt of the German refugee aid organization Pro Asyl said on Friday morning. "The EU is selling the human rights of refugees to Turkey."
Turkey has been criticized for not offering refugees adequate housing or access to education. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian behaviour, including a recent crackdown on opposition media, has also been condemned by rights activists.
"EU leaders have been mute in their response to these trends in the misguided hope of securing Turkey's co-operation in stopping the boats," said Kenneth Roth of the Human Rights Watch organization.