DIKILI, Turkey – Greece deported a second batch of more than 200 migrants to Turkey on Friday under a controversial EU deal to stem mass migration as Germany announced a sharp drop in asylum claims.
Greek officials said two boats carrying 124 migrants – most of them Pakistani men – had been sent back across the Aegean Sea where hundreds have lost their lives in a quest to reach Europe.
A small group of activists leapt into the water, clutching onto the anchor of the first ferry in an unsuccessful bid to stop the deportation, while a group of protesters chanted “EU, shame on you” and “Freedom for the refugees”.
After arriving at the Turkish harbor town of Dikili, security officials escorted the downcast migrants, clutching blankets and with small backpacks on their shoulders, off the vessels.
A Greek government statement said the migrants included 111 Pakistanis, 4 Iraqis, as well as citizens of Bangladesh, India, Morocco, Egypt, and a man claiming to be of Palestinian origin.
One of the Pakistanis was not accepted by Turkish authorities at Dikili for undisclosed reasons and was returned to Lesbos, the statement said.
In a separate operation, another 97 people – mainly Pakistanis and Bangladeshis – were returned to Turkey via the land border, Greek police said.
The deportations are taking place under a deal between Turkey and the European Union, which is straining under the pressure from the unprecedented flow of migrants into its territory. (READ: First wave of migrants returned to Turkey under EU deal)
Turkey has promised to take back all irregular migrants entering Greece since March 20 while Europe has agreed to resettle one Syrian refugee directly from camps in Turkey for each Syrian deported.
The deported migrants arriving in Dikili underwent health checks and registration before they are due to be sent by bus to Kirklareli on the Bulgarian border, from where they are expected to be deported back to their home country.
The threat of deportation is aimed at discouraging people from making the often deadly crossing in flimsy boats. (READ: Europe’s 2016 migrant crisis in figures)
‘Off to good start’
The transfers began Monday with some 200 migrants returned to Turkey, but then stalled after a last-minute flurry of asylum applications.
Human rights watchdogs say the scheme is badly flawed, and have raised concerns that migrants may not have the chance to apply for asylum before being deported.
France’s Secretary of State for Europe Harlem Desir, speaking in Athens Friday, called on EU members to do speed up efforts to help Greece deal with the migrants.
Desir was in the Greek capital with his Dutch, Italian, Maltese, Portuguese and Slovak counterparts with whom he held talks with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. They will travel on to Istanbul on Saturday.
If all the member states respect their promises,” to provide humanitarian aid and personnel reinforcement to Greece “we would have the capacity to accelerate” both the sending of migrants from Greece to Turkey,” he said.
While concerns remain over the deal, Germany – Europe’s top destination for refugees – said it had “got off to a good start”.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere announced that asylum applications had dropped 66% in March, down to 20,000.
De Maiziere has warned that the shutdown of the Turkey-Greece route may encourage more migrants to attempt the even more dangerous Mediterranean crossing from Libya to Italy.
The drop in migrant numbers appears largely due to much-criticized border closures in the Balkans, as well as an increased clampdown by Turkey on people smugglers.
Greece, which has bore the brunt of the migrant crisis, plans to evacuate a huge makeshift camp at the port of Piraeus ahead of the busy tourism season.
Nothing for nothing
While Europe appears to be getting its side of the bargain, Turkey warning that if the EU broke its promises it “will not implement the agreement.
“We have received lots of thanks for our action on the refugees and in the fight against terrorism. But we are not doing this for thanks,” said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Everything should happen in line with what has been promised, what has been set out in the text.”
Turkey has been promised visa-free travel for its citizens to Europe by June 2016, and the revival of its long-stalled EU accession process.
Turkey is also to receive a total of 6 billion euros ($6.8 billion) in financial aid up to the end of 2018 for the 2.7 million Syrian refugees it is hosting.
Rights groups have criticized these concessions as a “dirty deal”, with the EU accused of turning a blind eye to Erdogan’s slide into authoritarianism and crackdown on press freedom. – Ozan Kose with Fran Blandy in Istanbul and John Hadoulis in Athens, AFP/Rappler.com