Greece is making final preparations to return hundreds of asylum seekers to Turkey, the first to be sent back under a landmark EU deal that has been slammed by human rights watchdogs.
The operation is set to begin today (4 April) on the Greek island of Lesbos, which has served as a gateway for hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in Europe from Turkey in the past year.
Details of how the operation will proceed are sketchy, with Greek officials tight-lipped Sunday over who and how many refugees will be sent back across the Aegean Sea.
Turkish Interior Minister Efkan Ala said his country had made preparations to receive 500 people on Monday, and that the Greeks had given the names of 400.
“We have been in touch with the Greek authorities and said we could take 500 people and they have given us 400 names. Tomorrow it’s possible that this figure could change,” Ala was quoted as saying by the Anatolia news agency.
The European Union signed the controversial deal with Turkey in March as it wrestles with the continent’s worst migration crisis since World War II, with more than a million people arriving from the Middle East and elsewhere last year.
Under the agreement, designed to discourage people from making the risky Aegean crossing, all “irregular migrants” arriving since 20 March face being sent back, although the deal calls for each case to be examined individually.
In addition, for every Syrian refugee returned, another Syrian refugee will be resettled from Turkey to the EU, with numbers capped at 72,000.
The deal has faced heavy criticism from the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and human rights groups, who have questioned whether it is legal and ethical.
“We don’t know what is going to actually happen,” senior UN migration official Peter Sutherland said Saturday. “But if there is any question of collective deportations without individuals being given the right to claim asylum, that is illegal.”
Yiorgos Kyritsis, spokesman for Greece’s refugee coordination unit, insisted Monday’s operation “involves people who have not requested asylum.”
Focus on South Asian migrants
But on the Aegean islands themselves, many migrants have complained of not being given sufficient time and access to the asylum procedure.
Anas al-Bakhr, a Syrian engineer from Homs who is among those stuck on Chios island, said police marked his arrival date as 20 March 20 – the day the deal entered force – even though he arrived on the 19th.
“They said the computers were broken that day,” Bakhr told AFP.
As well as Lesbos, refugees may also be sent back from other Greek islands where many migrants have arrived, such as Chios, where members of EU border agency Frontex were seen arriving Sunday.
Greek 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, and that some 350 Frontex officers had arrived over the weekend for the operation.
The migrants would be taken from Lesbos to the Turkish port of Dikili, ANA said, adding that Frontex had chartered two Turkish tourist ferries. A third Turkish vessel has been hired to take some 250 mainly Pakistani migrants from Chios, the agency added.
Police sources on Lesbos on Sunday said there had been a flurry of last-minute asylum applications amongst the 3,300 migrants there.
“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.
On the other side of the Aegean, work is underway on a centre to host those sent back to the Turkish tourist resort of Cesme, with another being created in Dikili opposite Lesbos.
Turkish media reports say the Turkish Red Crescent is also preparing to open a refugee camp with capacity for 5,000 people further inland in Manisa.
The operation to resettle Syrians to Europe under the one-for-one arrangement also starts Monday.
Germany expects to take in a first group of about 35 Syrians from Turkey on Monday, the German interior ministry said. Several dozen others are expected to arrive in France, Finland and Portugal, according to German government sources.
Campaigners have criticised the deal, with Amnesty International accusing Turkey of illegally forcing Syrians to return to their war-torn homeland — proof that Turkey is not a safe country for refugees, it says.
Turkey rejects the charge, insisting it has not changed its open-door policy for Syrian refugees.
Greece, meanwhile, is struggling to accommodate a massive bottleneck of 52,000 migrants stuck on its territory after Balkan countries closed their borders to stop the influx.
Sporadic violence has broken out between different nationalities in overcrowded camps.
“It is evident that the longer this situation drags out, we will have such incidents by desperate people,” Kyritsis told AFP.
Several hundred Italians and Austrians, meanwhile, demonstrated against what they called “fortress Europe”, at the Brenner Pass crossing point between the two countries.