grčka migranti.jpg
Photograph: EPA/HARIS IORDANIDIS

The success of a migration-stemming deal between the European Union and Turkey hinges on the "political determination" of all involved, the bloc's executive said Wednesday, noting that the progress achieved so far is "fragile."

The agreement was struck in March after more than 1 million migrants and asylum seekers reached European shores last year, many by taking boats from Turkey to Greece. Turkey agreed to take such people back, in return for aid and benefits.

Since the deal was reached, migrant crossings from Turkey to Greece have dropped from a daily average of 1,740 to just 47 since May, the European Commission said Wednesday.

However, the future of the deal hinges on the EU's ability to grant Turkish citizens visa-free access to the bloc. The benefit is a key condition for Turkey, but Ankara is refusing to meet one of the EU's benchmarks, requiring a narrower definition of terrorism.

There are concerns that Ankara has used an anti-terrorism law to crack down on the media and government opposition.

"Turkey has committed to meeting the ... benchmarks to allow for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and we expect them to come to this commitment," EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said, without saying how long it might take to grant the benefit.

The initial aim had been to lift visa requirements from July, but the timetable has slipped.

Under the deal, an overall 462 migrants have so far been returned from Greece to Turkey, including 31 Syrians, the commission said. EU countries have taken in 511 Syrians from Turkey under a reciprocal arrangement.

But at the same time, Athens daily Kathimerini reported that Greece had granted asylum to 800 refugees on the island of Lesbos alone, one of the key arrival points for people crossing from Turkey.

Under the EU-Turkey deal, asylum applications can be turned down on the basis that people arriving from Turkey should instead have sought protection there.

But many asylum courts in Greece do not consider Turkey a safe third country to which refugees can be returned, Kathimerini reported.

Greece came under fire for its handling of the migration influx last year, as the cash-strapped country was accused of failing to control arrivals or prevent people from continuing unhindered towards wealthier northern European states.

Since then, Athens has improved its asylum system and reception conditions, the commission said. But the country must still make "significant" progress to meet EU standards, it noted.

Under EU rules, asylum seekers must file their request in the first EU member state they reach, but two European courts have ruled that people should not be returned to Greece because of poor asylum conditions there.

The commission laid out several concrete steps that Greece must take, including the creation of more open reception facilities, improving access to asylum procedures, providing free legal aid and supporting the most vulnerable, such as unaccompanied children.

But Greece cannot be expected to have a fully functioning asylum system without help to alleviate the pressure of the more than 50,000 people stuck in the country, Avramopoulos noted.

EU member states are supposed to take in asylum seekers from Greece and fellow frontline state Italy, but progress has been slow.

So far, member states have taken in an overall 2,280 people from Greece and Italy, but this falls "far short" of the commission's target of 6,000 people per month, the EU's executive noted.

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