German Chancellor Angela Merkel and top European Union officials arrived near Turkey's border with Syria on Saturday in a bid to bolster a troubled migration deal with Turkey as they face increasing pressure to reassess the agreement.
Human rights groups criticized the trip to what they call a "sanitized" refugee camp — and said EU officials should look further at the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees that are now blocked from entering Turkey.
The German leader is also facing pressure to speak out against freedom of speech restrictions in Turkey.
The trip to the border city of Gaziantep by Merkel, EU Council President Donald Tusk, EU Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, comes as many have questioned the legality of the March 20 EU-Turkey deal allowing for the deportation of migrants who don't qualify for asylum in Greece back to Turkey.
The EU in return has earmarked 6 billion euros ($6.8 billion) to Turkey over the next four years to help improve conditions for the 2.7 million Syrian refugees inside Turkey. The EU is also set to allow visa-free travel for Turkish citizens.
Speaking in Berlin on Friday, Merkel defended the EU-Turkey deal, saying it is "absolutely right and important and helps us to protect the outer border of the Schengen (free travel) area together with our neighbours."
U.S. President Barack Obama also weighed in on the issue in comments to German daily Bild that were published Saturday. He praised Merkel's "political and moral leadership" in the migrant crisis, but also stressed the need to uphold human rights.
"The recent agreement between the EU and Turkey is a step toward a more equitable way of sharing this responsibility," he said. "As the agreement is implemented, it will be essential that migrants are treated properly and that human rights are upheld."
Rights groups, EU legislators and the U.N. refugee agency have questioned the moral and legal implications of expelling people from Greece back to Turkey — a country that many consider unsafe on grounds of security and human rights.
Despite insisting that it has an open-door policy for Syrian refugees, Turkey in the past few months has blocked several thousand refugees who were fleeing northern Syria at the border, providing aid to them at displaced persons camps near the border instead. Human rights groups say some of the camps have been attacked and are pressing Ankara to give the refugees shelter inside Turkey.
Amnesty International says Turkish authorities have also for the past three months been expelling around 100 Syrians a day back to their war-ravaged country — an accusation Turkey has denied. The country has also rejected claims that Turkish soldiers have on occasion shot at refugees trying to cross the border illegally.
The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch has urged EU leaders to understand the whole refugee picture at the Turkish border.
"Instead of touring a sanitized refugee camp, EU leaders should look over the top of Turkey's new border wall to see the tens of thousands of war-weary Syrian refugees blocked on the other side," said Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch's acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director. "Then, they should go to the (Turkish) detention centre for people who were abusively deported from Greece. That should make them rethink the flawed EU-Turkey deal."
Amnesty International's deputy director for Europe, Gauri van Gulik told The Associated Press the delegation "needs a profound reality check."
" Pretending all is well for refugees in Turkey blindly denies shootings at refugees, returns of Syrians to Syria and more, all in the dogged determination to keep people out of Europe," she said.
Merkel's visit also comes amid controversy over her decision to grant Turkey's request to let German prosecutors and courts decide whether German comedian Jan Boehmermann had insulted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Critics have accused Merkel of kowtowing to Turkey because of the country's important role in stopping the influx of migrants to Europe.
Turkey's leaders, meanwhile, are warning that the whole migrant deportation deal will collapse if the EU fails to grant Turkish citizens the right to visa-free stays for tourism or business by July.