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Photograph: EPA/NAKE BATEV

Turkey and the European Union have sketched out a new plan to stem the flow of migrants and asylum seekers crossing the Aegean Sea, which they hope to finalize at a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.

However, the plan has faced a barrage of criticism over a provision that foresees a swap of Syrian refugees between the EU and Turkey. EU officials argue that this is needed to undercut migrant smuggling networks, but critics say the approach is inhumane and illegal.

Here is how the EU intends to make the approach legal, based on public announcements, leaked documents and information from sources speaking on condition of anonymity:

- Both Greece and Turkey will have to modify their national legislation under the EU's plan. Turkey will need to ensure that it treats all refugees - and in particular Syrians - in accordance with international law, while Greece will have to classify Turkey as a safe third country.

This would pave the way for Greece to return asylum seekers to Turkey, under a provision in EU law that allows an asylum application to be declared "inadmissible" if "a country which is not a member state is considered as a safe third country for the applicant."

- A Syrian arrives on a Greek island and says he wants to apply for asylum. Under the EU's plan, his application would be assessed, with a process including a personal interview and a right to appeal.

If the Syrian has come through Turkey, Greece would declare his application inadmissible and send him back to Turkey. The EU argues that this does not amount to blanket returns - which are illegal - as each asylum application will be assessed individually.

Greece would host the asylum seeker while his application is processed. The EU has not said how long this would take, but some member states are processing applications in as little as 48 hours, a diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

- It is expected that this return procedure will apply to any asylum seeker and economic migrant who reaches Greece via Turkey, regardless of their nationality. However, special safeguards are foreseen for groups who would not be safe in Turkey, an EU source said. This could for instance apply to people of Kurdish origin.

- Every Syrian returned to Turkey will set in motion a special procedure that will see another Syrian asylum seeker resettled from Turkey directly into the EU, to ease the burden on that country. The Syrian asylum seekers returned from Greece would not have priority to be resettled - a move meant to discourage asylum seekers from using smugglers to cross the Aegean.

Brussels currently foresees allowing up to 72,000 Syrian asylum seekers to be resettled in the EU through this mechanism. If people are still using smugglers to cross the Aegean once that number is reached, the EU would reconsider its approach.

- The 1-for-1 principle for Syrian asylum seekers is meant to be a temporary and extraordinary measure that would end once the flows over the Aegean are stemmed. As soon as this happens, EU countries would launch a so-called Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme to take in Syrian asylum seekers directly from Turkey.

The EU is not particularly concerned about legal challenges that could be filed with the European Court of Justice, because the 1-for-1 principle is likely to achieve its desired effect long before the EU's top court would issue a ruling, another diplomat said.

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