Bulgaria will be able to send back migrants who have crossed its border with Turkey illegally from June 1, according to the protocol signed between Sofia and Ankara on Thursday.
The country is the first among EU member states to sign the protocol, which sets procedures for sending refugees back to Turkey.
“The most important thing is that we are sending a very strong signal to the traffickers and the refugees who plan to cross the Bulgarian-Turkish border,” Bulgarian interior minister Rumyana Rachvarova said in Ankara.
Brussels and Ankara initially reached an agreement on the readmission of illegal migrants who entered Europe from Turkey in 2013, in exchange for speeding up talks on visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens.
But the process was accelerated after the EU and Turkey sealed their controversial deal on returning refugees on March 18 this year, which forced Brussels to make serious concessions to Ankara in an attempt to halt the migrant flow.
Despite harsh criticism, the European Commission proposed lifting visa requirements for Turkish citizens from June.
Turkish interior minister Efkan Ala said on Thursday that Turkey will sign similar documents with other EU countries and that it is ready to fulfil its commitments.
The Turkish and Bulgarian interior ministers also agreed on procedures for a joint contact centre between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, which will start operation in several weeks’ time at the Capitan Andreevo border checkpoint on the Bulgarian-Turkish border.
It aims to allow the three countries to exchange operational information on issues related to people-smuggling, contraband and counter-terrorism.
Bachvarova pointed out that in the first three months of 2016, the illegal trafficking of migrants into Bulgaria decreased by 30 per cent on a year-on-year basis to 1,500 people.
In attempts to halt the refugee and migrant flow through the Bulgarian-Turkish border, Sofia has deployed additional police to boost its border guards and allowed the army to participate in border patrols.
A 133-kilometre barbed-wire fence is still under construction along the country’s land border with Turkey.
Meanwhile, in an interview with the AFP news agency, Bulgarian Prime MInister Boyko Borissov confirmed Bulgaria’s commitment to the EU refugee quota system, according to which Bulgaria has to take 1,200 asylum seekers.
“It does not matter whether there are 1,200 or 2,000, we are ready to accept them,” Borissov said.
He called for more solidarity from other Eastern and Central European member states that oppose the refugee quotas.
However, at a meeting of the European People’s Party at the end of April, the Bulgarian premier admitted so far Bulgaria had taken only two refugees under the EU relocation scheme, and one of them had already escaped back to Western Europe.
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