44 drown in migrant boat sinking as Germany seeks Turkish help

44 drown in migrant boat sinking as Germany seeks Turkish help
PHOTO: Reuters

ATHENS - Forty-four people drowned after three refugee boats sank Friday off Greece, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to press Turkey to play a bigger part in resolving Europe's escalating migrant crisis.

Germany and Turkey have emerged as crucial players in the biggest migration crisis to rock Europe since World War II, and both Merkel and visiting Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will seek to drive a hard bargain in Berlin where the two countries' cabinets are meeting.

The outcome of Friday's talks is not only important for Merkel, who faces intense pressure at home to impose a cap on Germany's refugee intake, but it will also have resonance across Europe where public opinion is hardening against a record asylum seeker influx.

Despite wintry conditions, thousands of people fleeing war and misery are still embarking on the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to seek a better life in Europe.

In a stark illustration of the high cost of the voyage, Greek and Turkish coastguards recovered the bodies of 44 migrants - including 20 children - whose boats capsized on their way to Greece, officials said Friday.

EU member states have been split about how to end the crisis, with Austria the latest to draw fire when it decided to impose a limit on its asylum seeker intake.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said the measure serves as a "wake-up call" to push Europe to find a joint solution.

Merkel has so far resisted demands for a quota, after nearly 1.1 million asylum seekers arrived in Germany in 2015.

She has instead promised a "tangible reduction" in new arrivals, and is counting on international efforts to deliver.

Merkel won some backing from US President Barack Obama, who in a phone call late Thursday pledged to contribute "substantially" at a Syria donors' conference in February.

At the Davos summit of business and political elite, US Secretary of State John Kerry also made a call for a 30-per cent hike in international aid for refugees.

But Merkel is well aware of the pivotal role played by Turkey, which not only shares a border with war-torn Syria but is also a launchpad for thousands of migrants.

Merkel will ask Davutoglu to honour a deal with the EU to reduce the number of migrants coming through, as between 2,000 and 3,000 people are still arriving daily in Greece from Turkey despite the November 29 accord.

But the EU has yet to deliver on the deal either, with member states still squabbling over the financing for aid towards the 2.2 million Syrian refugees that Turkey is hosting.

Davutoglu Thursday said he would not even ask about the three billion euros (S$4.6 billion) promised by the EU but will demand concrete action instead.

"We are not asking (for) money, we are not negotiating (for) money... For us, it's a humanitarian duty, therefore the problem is not financial assistance," Davutoglu said in Davos.

"We hope the next steps will be concrete steps to address this issue," he said.

Die Welt newspaper said "it is possible that Germany would promise additional bilateral funds".

With the meeting coming on the heels of last week's attack in Istanbul that killed 10 German tourists, discussions will also inevitably focus on the international battle against the Islamic State group, Merkel's spokesman said.

Turkey has a special relationship with Germany as the EU's biggest economy is not only home to around three million people with Turkish roots, but is also its biggest trading partner.

Friday's talks are part of so-called government consultations - a format that Germany has with only a handful of countries. It will be the first with Turkey, and includes interior, foreign and defence ministers from both sides.

Merkel has said she will use the occasion to raise thorny topics such as media independence and the situation of the Kurds.

Concerns over press freedom are rising in Turkey, after an increasing number of journalists were arrested for insulting or criticising top officials.

Turkey is also waging an all-out offensive against the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), with military operations backed by curfews aimed at flushing out rebels from several southeastern urban centres.

But Kurdish activists say dozens of civilians have died as a result of excessive force.

Prominent actors, writers and academics in Germany, including members of the Turkish community, have also signed a petition urging Merkel to raise the plight of "victims of the aggression in south-eastern Turkey."

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