By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Anxiety about refugees streaming to its shores has led the European Union to turn an apparent blind eye to rights abuses in Turkey, whose help the EU needs to reduce the migrant influx, the European Parliament's rapporteur on Turkey said on Tuesday.
The number of Syrian war refugees in neighboring Turkey has swelled to 2.6 million and the EU has promised Ankara 3 billion euros to help it cope with them in the hope this will dissuade many from making onward journeys to Europe.
EU officials have also voiced renewed support for Turkey's long-held aspiration of joining the 28-nation bloc if it does more to stem the outflow of migrants to Europe.
The European Parliament's rapporteur on Turkey said the delay of a European Commission progress report on Ankara's EU qualifications until after the November 2015 election, won by the party that backs President Tayyip Erdogan, suggested the bloc was staying "silent" in the face of a deteriorating rights record in Turkey.
Turkish security-force operations against Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey since July have killed at least 160 civilians, according to rights groups. Journalists and academics critical of the government's policies have been detained.
"The (EU) accession process ... should be connected to democratic reforms or rule of law or what's happening with the Kurdish question," rapporteur Kati Piri told Reuters. "The European Union gave a pretty bad signal by connecting it so directly to migration."
Ankara's peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) collapsed in July, ending a ceasefire. Some 400,000 people have been displaced since the conflict reignited, Piri said in the telephone interview.
"If the EU does not engage actively in calling for an immediate ceasefire and the peace process to be resumed, we could face another refugee inflow, and this time it will be coming from Turkey," she told reporters in Brussels, presenting the draft report that will be voted on by European lawmakers.
STEPS TO CURB FLOW
More than 1 million migrants reached Europe via illegal routes in 2015, and another million will seek to do so in 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Turkey has yet to receive any of the 3 billion euros of EU aid, but Piri said the government had boosted efforts to stop refugees, including blocking Syrians coming from Jordan and Lebanon and breaking up people-smuggling rings.
But it will have to lift its geographical limitation on accepting refugees in order to meet EU criteria, she said.
Turkey only considers those fleeing Europe to be refugees, although there has been no such migration for decades, and gives those from other regions only limited rights to live and work.
"This will be a very important point in the coming months. It is one of the conditions Turkey needs to fulfill for visa liberalization with the EU. This could be a huge step forward for improving the lives of asylum seekers in Turkey," said Piri.
Turkey opened membership talks with the EU in 2005 but the slow pace of reforms there, a dispute over the divided island of Cyprus and worries in Europe about taking in a country with a large Muslim population has stalled its accession bid.
(Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Mark Heinrich)