LESBOS, Greece (UPDATED) – Three boats shipped scores of migrants from the Greek islands to Turkey on Monday, April 4, the first wave of deportations under a hotly-contested pact to ease Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II.
As the sun rose over the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios, some 200 migrants, mainly from Pakistan and Bangladesh, were ferried back across the Aegean Sea, retracing the perilous journey they took on rickety boats in their desperation to reach Europe.
European Union officials are hoping the deal with Ankara will discourage migrants from making a trek that has claimed hundreds of lives and curb a human influx which has badly strained the 28-nation bloc.
Yorgos Kyritsis, the Greek government’s migration spokesman, said 136 migrants had left from Lesbos, and 66 from Chios.
“These are migrants who did not request asylum in Greece. The majority were Pakistani. There were two Syrians who did not request asylum for personal reasons,” he said.
Police and riot officers were present, but “the procedure was very calm, everything was orderly,” EU border agency Frontex spokeswoman Ewa Moncure told reporters at Lesbos harbour.
Hundreds of Frontex officials, including asylum experts and interpreters, arrived on the Greek islands over the weekend to assist in the operation.
A few dozen activists on Chios protested against the deportations, chanting “Freedom,” an AFP photographer said.
“Stop the dirty deal,” “stop deportations,” and “wake up Europe” were among the banners brandished in Lesbos against the disputed EU-Turkey agreement.
A couple of hours later, the first ferry docked in the Turkish coastal town of Dikili, according to AFP reporters at the scene.
Red tents have been set up along the town’s harborside to receive the arrivals.
Mustafa Toprak, governor of Turkey’s Izmir region, said the migrants would only be staying briefly in Dikili and the resort of Cesme – a second reception point – before being moved on.
But the deal did not seem to completely deter those hoping to reach Europe, for the Turkish coastguard blocked a boatload of about 60 migrants, mostly Afghans, on Monday morning, AFP journalists reported.
Syrians arrive in Germany
The EU kept its side of the pact, with a group of 16 asylum seekers from Syria flying into Germany, which last year let in a record 1.1 million migrants.
A second group was expected in the city of Hanover later Monday.
A representative from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, who did not give her name, asked reporters to respect the privacy of the asylum seekers, who were members of 3 families. An AFP reporter saw 5 children among them.
“This is all very new, very difficult,” she said. “They have been traveling for a very long time.”
Several dozen other refugees are expected to arrive in France, Finland, and Portugal, according to German government sources.
The huge influx of migrants into the EU is tugging at the bloc by the seams.
The deal clinched in March, driven by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is seen as a last-ditch effort to overcome the crisis.
Under the terms of the deal, all “irregular migrants” arriving since March 20 face being sent back, although the accord calls for each case to be examined individually.
For every Syrian refugee returned, another will be resettled from Turkey to the EU, with numbers capped at 72,000.
In Monday’s first wave, Turkish Interior Minister Efkan Ala has said his country was ready to receive 500 people and that Greek authorities had provided 400 names, although these numbers could change.
Police sources on Lesbos, a Greek holiday island that has served as the gateway for hundreds of thousands of people coming from Turkey, said there had been a flurry of last-minute asylum applications.
“We… have over two thousand people that have stated their wish to seek asylum and we need to see a credible process go ahead with the Greek asylum service for those that wish to express their protection concerns,” said Boris Cheshirkov, the UN refugee agency spokesman on Lesbos.
Greek officials have been tight-lipped over how many migrants will cross the Aegean Sea back to Turkey.
State news agency ANA reported that some 250 migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and African nations would be sent back daily between Monday and Wednesday.
Rights groups have criticized the deal, questioning whether it is legal and ethical.
Amnesty International says Turkey is not a safe country for refugees – a charge Ankara rejects – and has described the deal as a “death blow to the right to seek asylum.”
Senior UN migration official Peter Sutherland said this weekend that “if there is any question of collective deportations without individuals being given the right to claim asylum, that is illegal.”
Many migrants on the islands have complained of not being given sufficient time and access to carry out the asylum procedure. – Will Vassilopoulos with Louisa Gouliamaki in Chios, Greece, AFP / Rappler.com