BRUSSELS — Eager to push the migration crisis back beyond their own frontiers, European leaders gathered in Brussels on Thursday to endorse stepped-up border controls and a push to get Turkey to control the flow of Syrians and others before they can reach Europe.
The gathering in Brussels, the fourth consecutive summit meeting focused on the issue, marked a shift away from the open-armed message sent over the summer by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany toward what critics describe as a “fortress Europe” approach.
Arriving in Brussels on Thursday, Ms. Merkel described the flow of people seeking refuge and a better life in Europe as “very disorderly” and called for joint efforts by the 28-nation European Union to secure the bloc’s external borders.
Before flying to Brussels, Ms. Merkel told the lower house of Parliament in Berlin that Europe faced a “historic task” in dealing with the influx of migrants and must work with Turkey, where more than two million Syrians have taken shelter, to slow the flow toward Europe.
“Without a doubt Turkey plays a key role in this situation,” Ms. Merkel said. “Most war refugees who come to Europe travel via Turkey. We won’t be able to order and stem the refugee movement without working together with Turkey.”
Germany and the European Union as a whole are hoping that Turkey will agree to curb migrant traffic to Greek islands, some of which lie just a few miles from the Turkish coast, and also to take back asylum-seekers whose claims for refugee status in the European Union get rejected.
As an inducement, Brussels is offering to give billions of euros in extra European funding for Turkey and also to speed up visa-free access to Europe for Turkish citizens, a politically delicate issue at a time when most governments are scrambling for ways to limit, not expand, access to their countries.
The union’s top executive, Jean-Claude Juncker said Thursday that talks with Turkey were “moving in the right direction” and officials here said Turkey had assented to a preliminary accord during talks Thursday in Ankara with Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s vice president.
But national governments, many of which are reluctant to grant visa-free access to Turks, must now sign off on the terms of any agreement.
Turkey, relishing the leverage that Europe’s desperation has given it, has driven a hard bargain, with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu telling Turkish television that his county would not take back migrants rejected for asylum in Europe unless Turks were allowed to travel to Europe without visas.
Under political pressure at home to curb an influx of asylum seekers to Germany, which now expects 1.5 million migrants in all this year, Ms. Merkel has increasingly looked to Turkey as a possible solution and is due to travel there on Sunday to appeal for help from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
That will follow a visit to Turkey on Wednesday and Thursday by Mr. Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister, who has been also been pushing for a deal with Ankara on the migration issue.
Diplomats in Brussels say that one proposal under discussion would call for Turkey to set up camps funded and supervised by the European Union where asylum seekers hoping for refuge in Europe would be registered and processed.
This revives an idea put forward more than a decade ago by Tony Blair, when he was the British prime minister, for the establishment of migrant reception centers in Africa and the Middle East that would effectively move offshore the processing of asylum claims. The plan, which Amnesty International condemned as “inherently unlawful,” never got off the ground.
But as European governments grope for ways to deal with the current crisis, keeping asylum seekers outside Europe would also solve what has become a major headache: what to do with the tens of thousands of people in Europe whose asylum claims have been rejected but who refuse to leave. In the second quarter of this year, according to Frontex, the European Union border agency, only 43,000 of the 72,168 failed asylum candidates left as ordered.
European Union interior ministers last week agreed on tougher measures to ensure the swift deportation of migrants who do not qualify for refugee status, including the “use of detention as a legitimate measure of last resort.”
Germany’s Parliament on Thursday toughened its own policy toward failed asylum-seekers as part of a package of measures that could help Ms. Merkel damp down protest in her own conservative camp that Germany’s considerable resources are being overstretched by the refugee crisis.
The package means that Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro will now be considered “safe,” and almost none of its citizens therefore eligible for asylum in Germany. Other measures will cut cash benefits paid to asylum claimants, reduce the amount of time to process claims and speed deportation of those who do not get permission to stay.
“I have looked very carefully at the figures,” Ms. Merkel said, “and Germany is nowhere near the top” in sending home those refused asylum.
Elizabeth Collett, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, a research group in Brussels, said the renewed emphasis on tougher border controls was in part “just political theater,” because leaders find it “much easier to agree on the need for strong borders” than on what to do with refugees once they arrive.
“There is a need to demonstrate action, so there is a lot of talk without the details being worked through,” she said.
Hungary, which faced strong criticism over the summer for using force to prevent asylum seekers from breaching a fence along its southern border, is now moving swiftly to beef up its own border security. Instead of waiting for the European Union to act, it has asked its neighbors to provide border guards to help its own forces, with the Czech Republic and Slovakia pledging a total of 200 officers.
In a letter to European Union leaders this week inviting them to the summit meeting, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council and a former Polish prime minister, warned that Europe faces even “bigger waves” of asylum-seekers once winter passes and called for tighter controls.
All the same, it is doubtful that Europe has the resources needed to bolster its external borders, particularly in Greece and Italy, through which 470,000 asylum-seekers have entered the union so far this year, according to Frontex.
Frontex, which mostly coordinates and advises national border services, has no guards, vehicles, boats or aircraft of its own. Last week, it appealed to European Union member states to provide 775 border guards to help ensure that all asylum-seekers are properly identified and registered.
In a presentation to leaders on Thursday, however, Jean-Claude Juncker, the union’s top executive, complained that only 48 officers had so far been offered.
Five months after the union’s executive arm, the European Commission, announced a program to relocate 40,000 migrants from front-line states, a number later expanded to 160,000, only 19 Eritreans have so far been relocated, flying last week on a chartered jet from Italy to Sweden.
Despite pledges by leaders in September to provide 2.8 billion euro in extra funding for humanitarian aid and migrants, only a handful of countries have actually followed through, offering a total of 450 million euro. “It is a question of credibility,” Mr. Juncker, the president of the European Commission, said Thursday, adding that leaders need to show “whether they can live up to their promises.”