The 28 EU leaders were taken by surprise by the bold, last minute Turkish initiative, which went beyond previous plans for more limited cooperation.
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Relief charity Doctors without Borders said it was cynical and inhumane.
But the executive an Commission insisted the deal to put an end to a mass influx of more than a million people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond, due to be finalised next week, was fully legal.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who pushed for the accord to assuage anxious voters before regional elections on Sunday, said things were finally moving in the right direction after nearly a million Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others flooded into Germany alone last year.
She denied accusations that Turkey was using refugees to blackmail .
Under the tentative deal, the EU would admit one refugee directly from Turkey for each Syrian it took back from the Greek Aegean islands, and those who attempted the perilous sea route would be returned and go to the back of the queue.
The aim is to persuade Syrians and others that they have better prospects if they stay in Turkey, with increased EU funding for housing, schools and subsistence.
EU officials questioned how the one-for-one scheme would work in practice, with several EU countries objecting to any quota system for resettling refugees.
Afghan refugees walk through a beach where they will wait to board a dinghy sailing off for the Greek island of Chios, while they try to travel from the western Turkish coastal town of Cesme, in Izmir province, Turkey, March 6, 2016Union deal to send back all irregular migrants to Turkey in exchange for political and financial rewards could be illegal.
"I am deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law," U. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told the an Parliament in Strasbourg.