Greece shipped more than 200 migrants back to Turkey on Monday, the first wave of deportations under a hugely controversial deal aimed at easing Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II.
The orderly return of the 202 migrants aboard three chartered Turkish ferries stood in stark contrast to the journey many have taken over perilous seas aboard crowded rubber dinghies.
Two boats left the Greek island of Lesbos at dawn and another from the island of Chios, carrying mostly Afghan and Pakistani migrants who Turkey will eventually deport to their home countries.
The grim-faced deportees were boarded onto the boats by security guards from the EU’s Frontex border agency, who were wearing sanitary face masks.
Facing an unprecedented influx that has threatened to tear the bloc apart, the European Union clinched a last-ditch deal with Turkey to take back all migrants landing in Greece after March 20.
In a heavily criticised swap deal, the EU has pledged to rehouse one Syrian in the bloc for every one deported from Greece, with numbers capped at 72,000.
A first batch of 32 Syrian asylum seekers were flown into the German city of Hanover on Monday under that part of the deal.
European leaders hope the agreement will discourage migrants from risking the Aegean crossing that has claimed 366 lives this year alone and break up the lucrative racket that smuggled about one million migrants into Europe last year.
But rights groups have slammed the pact as inhumane and a blow to the right to request asylum, and protesters on Lesbos brandished banners reading: “Stop the dirty deal”, “stop deportations” and “wake up Europe”.
Amnesty International has accused Turkey of not being a safe country for refugees by forcibly returning Syrians back home to their war-torn countries -- a charge Ankara rejects.
“The returns today are in many ways symbolic,” said Gauri Vangulik, deputy Europe director for Amnesty International.
“They are the first starting point of what is to become really one of the most disastrous episodes in European asylum policy.”
‘Guests for a while’
The first to be deported under the deal arrived at the Turkish resort of Dikili to a heavy security presence on the harbourside, with media kept at a distance by metal barriers.
“The taking of fingerprints, the landing at the port, medical checks... the transport of the 202 people in buses to reception centres in Kirklareli (on the Bulgarian border) is all taking place successfully,” said Mustafa Toprak, governor of Turkey’s Izmir region.
Yorgos Kyritsis, Greece’s migration spokesperson, said the first wave contained citizens from Iran, Congo, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Ivory Coast and Somalia.
Only two were from Syria and they had requested to return for personal reasons, Kyritsis said.
Turkish EU affairs minister Volkan Bozkir told HaberTurk television that the non-Syrian migrants would be sent to Kirklareli for checks ahead of deportation to their own countries.
“People who have migrated for purely economic reasons are to be sent back according to the rules,” he said.
“We will apply to the countries of the illegal migrants. They can be our guests for a while and then bit by bit we will send them back.”
The first group of migrants was already seen boarding buses for the long drive to Kirklareli.
Despite the controversy surrounding the deal, it appeared to be reducing the flow.
Turkey’s interior minister Efkan Ala said at the weekend that the numbers crossing had already fallen substantially in the last 10 days to just 300 people a day.
But some decided to chance it despite the risk of being sent back, and the Turkish coastguard on Monday blocked a boatload of about 60 mostly Afghan migrants, an AFP correspondent said.
Those in Greece are now rushing to speed up their asylum requests to avoid deportation.
“Lawyers came to talk to us through the fence and explain that it was best to do that,” said Toufik, an Afghan in the Moria migrant camp on Lesbos.
Authorities in Greece are trying to relieve pressure on overcrowded makeshift camps on the border and the port of Piraeus, where there are over 15,000 people staying in unhygienic conditions.
Deputy defence minister Dimitris Vitsas on Monday said room for an additional 10,000 people would be available by April 10 and that refugees and migrants would be urged to move to organised facilities.
“Piraeus will be cleared before (May 1),” Vitsas told Mega TV.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a particular interest in the deal, as her country accepted a record 1.1 million migrants last year after she refused to cap refugee numbers, earning her criticism at home and within the EU.
In return for its assistance in implementing the deal, Turkey will receive billions in EU aid, accelerated visa-free travel for its citizens and progress in its bid for membership of the bloc.