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As Ankara Eyes Tougher Visa Rules, Neighbors Fret

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (left) shakes hands with European Council President Donald Tusk after meeting to discuss Europe's migrant crisis. Turkey's neighbors fear that, if Ankara toughens its visa regime to help stem the flow of migrants into Europe, it could also drastically reduce the number of countries whose citizens can currently enter Turkey easily.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (left) shakes hands with European Council President Donald Tusk after meeting to discuss Europe's migrant crisis. Turkey's neighbors fear that, if Ankara toughens its visa regime to help stem the flow of migrants into Europe, it could also drastically reduce the number of countries whose citizens can currently enter Turkey easily.

Dauren Zhumadilov never thought he'd get caught up in Europe's migrant crisis.

But the enterprising Kazakh manager's tourism agency in Almaty, some 3,500 kilometers from the Turkish riviera, would be hit if Brussels successfully presses Ankara to toughen its visa requirements for many countries as part of an accord to stem the flow of migrants to Europe.

"If that happens," he says of Turkey reinstating a visa requirement for his countrymen, "that will tremendously and negatively affect us."

The danger for Zhumadilov, and his peers in a handful of other currently visa-free countries, lies in the small print of the working papers the EU has prepared as it negotiates the details of its March 7 draft migrant deal with Turkey. As part of the bargain, Turkey committed to toughening its visa regime in exchange for the EU giving Turkish citizens visa-free access to Schengen states no later than the end of June.

Brussels says the reference point for a tougher Turkish visa policy should be the EU's own highly restrictive visa-free and visa-required lists for entering EU countries.

If Ankara agrees to the EU's position, the results would be a drastic reduction in the number of countries whose citizens can easily enter Turkey -- from dozens today to just a handful in the future.

Nations whose citizens need a visa to enter the EU but do not need a visa to enter Turkey include all of the former Soviet republics, Iran, and several Middle Eastern and North African states.

"The tourism business in Kazakhstan is mainly based on external tourism, and the major destination is Turkey," Zhumadilov tells RFE/RL by phone from Turan Express travel agency in Kazakhstan's largest city. "They choose Turkey [because] it is visa-free."

He says if Turkey toughens its visa regulations for Kazakhs, his clients would likely go to countries like Croatia, on the Adriatic coast, which eases its entry rules for Kazakh tourists during the peak summer months.

The fact that the EU-Turkey talks are going on behind closed doors only worries regional business people like Zhumadilov all the more. No details of the negotiations are likely to emerge until at least March 17 or 18, when European Council President Donald Tusk is to brief a summit of EU heads of state in Brussels on progress.

The EU's recommendation that Turkey radically tighten its visa regime would reverse over a decade of efforts by Ankara to open its doors to encourage trade and tourism. The easy-entry policy has been a hallmark of Turkey's ruling, religious-based Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose "zero problems" foreign policy has made a point particularly of reaching out to nearby Muslim states.

But now the easy-visa policy is much criticized in Brussels as the EU says it is a major reason why Turkey has become a springboard for migrants seeking to reach Europe in the biggest influx to the continent since World War II.

According to the EU, more than 888,000 of the 1.2 million or so migrants who entered Europe last year arrived via Turkey. They mostly came from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but also originated in Iran, Morocco Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria, Somalia, and Lebanon.

But if the EU recommends that Turkey now bring its visa requirements into line with the bloc's own tough rules, it is ultimately up to Turkey to decide how it will accomplish that goal.

"I don't think the EU finds itself in any position where it can demand Turkey does anything but it can, of course, ask nicely," says Amanda Paul, a senior policy analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Center. She says Turkey has a strong hand in negotiations because it knows the EU cannot easily solve its urgent migrant crisis without Ankara's help.

Two Tracks

There are two ways migrants use Turkey's liberal visa regime to enter the country and move on to Europe, according to Frontex, the EU's border-control agency.

Citizens of countries with which Turkey has visa-free agreements can enter Turkey without a visa and stay from 30 up to 90 days. This is the case for Iranians, for instance, who made up 3 percent of the total migrants to Europe via Turkey last year. It is also the case for Moroccans, who made up 1 percent.

The visa-free entry means the travelers are never screened by Turkish consular officers in their home countries or at the Turkish border. Syrians, who made up 56 percent of those entering the EU last year, cross into Turkey visa-free as refugees.

Citizens of many other states require a visa. But Turkey offers many of them, too, a way to bypass screening by Turkish consular officers in their home countries. They can use Turkey's electronic visa program, which allows travelers who claim to have Schengen visas or to reside in a Schengen state to get their visas through the Internet.

When the travelers arrive in Turkey, immigration officials are supposed to verify that they in fact hold onward Schengen visas. However, Frontex says, the passport controls are often cursory and stop with simply verifying the travelers are not on security blacklists.

Among the countries whose citizens can get visas electronically are several major sources of migrants to Europe, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghans were the second-largest group of migrants to Europe via Turkey in 2015, composing 24 percent of the total. Pakistanis made up another 3 percent.

Costs For Turkey

As it decides how much to change its current easy-visa policy, Turkey will have to weigh not just EU pressure but also its own economic interests.

"The present liberal visa regime is triggered in large part by the hunger of Turkey for tourists," notes Murat Bilhan, vice chairman of the Istanbul-based Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies (TASAM).

The tourism industry, one of the country's biggest employers, has already been hard hit by Russian sanctions following Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane in November. Recent figures show Russian tourism to the Antalya coast was down 81 percent in January compared to the same time last year. That gives Ankara strong reasons not to make access more difficult for the tourists from Egypt, Israel, Azerbaijan, and Iran who now are reportedly taking the Russians' place.

But Turkey also must consider a domestic economic cost to its liberal visa regime, and that is the burden of supporting some 200,000 irregular migrants now living in the country. They are in addition to the some 2.2 million refugees Turkey hosts from Syria.

"If immigrants don't find a chance to move to other countries and try for better conditions there, they settle in Turkey, which is a threat to Turkey," says Bilhan. "Turkey does not have enough means and capacity to absorb them."

Turkey has already signaled twice this year that it is ready to tighten up visa requirements for its neighbors.

In January, Ankara introduced visa obligations for Syrians coming to Turkey from third countries like Lebanon and Jordan, both of which have large numbers of Syrian refugees. The move was intended to help stem irregular migration to Europe.

And in February, Turkey stopped issuing visas to Iraqis at the Turkish border, insisting they now obtain visas through a Turkish consulate at home. However, Iraqis claiming to have visas or residency permits for Schengen states can still obtain electronic visas. Iraqis made up 10 percent of migrants to Europe via Turkey in 2015.

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