Crossings to Greece continue as Turkey accepts first returnees
LESBOS, Greece and DIKILI, Turkey - Passenger ferries arrived at the Turkish port of Dikili on Monday morning, carrying 202 people who were returned from Greece under an EU deal.
The boats contained mostly Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Moroccan and Sri Lankan men, as well as two Syrians who returned voluntarily.
Migrants at the Moria detention centre on the island were woken by police at 4am local time and loaded onto buses at around 6am in order to be taken to the port of Mytilene.
Escorted by large numbers of riot police, they were transferred onto two Turkish passenger ferries that set off around an hour later.
In Dikili, officials erected a fence of blue tarpaulin around the port with a tent set up by the Turkish Red Crescent to process the new arrivals barely visible through the gaps. A police helicopter watched from above, and Turkish vessels patrolled the waters.
“Every day they are still going across,” Ali, a Turkish fisherman surveying the scene alongside journalists, told Middle East Eye.
He pulled out his phone to show a photo of a group of mostly Syrian men, women and children huddled together, their faces visible among a blur of orange life vests.
“Their boat capsized near here, and I went to help them. People come here to help them, give them money... the tourists are scared of them, because they look like they are sick and have no money.”
It remains unclear what will happen to those returned to Turkey, with unconfirmed speculation in Dikili suggesting that returnees would be taken to a facility in a nearby town to begin the process that will ultimately lead to their deportation to their home countries.
Turkish EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir told reporters that a camp in the town of Osmaniye, 40km from the Syrian border, was being prepared for returning Syrians, while non-Syrians would be sent to Kirklareli on the Bulgarian border before 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."
But there are concerns that Syrians returned to Turkey under the deal could be forcibly returned to their home country.
Turkey already hosts more than 2.7 million registered Syrians including around 250,000 who are housed in camps along the border that are already filled to capacity.
On 1 April, Amnesty International issued a report claiming that Turkey had been forcibly returning groups of Syrians to their home country on a near daily basis since January.
Turkish officials have denied the allegations. But Amnesty said: “There is a very real risk that some of those the EU sends back to Turkey will suffer the same fate.”
“The returns this morning in the Aegean are the symbolic start of the potentially disastrous undoing of Europe's commitment to protecting refugees,” Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s Deputy Directory for Europe and Central Asia said in a statement.
“What process are detained refugees in the hotspots going through and what will become of them after their return? It's evident that Greece and the EU are massively underprepared and there are nowhere near enough guarantees in place for the safety of refugees in Turkey.”
Over 700 police officers were involved in this morning’s operation on the Lesbos side, including riot police units from France and Portugal.
As the ferries were leaving, 58 new arrivals from Pakistan and Bangladesh were picked up off the coast of Lesbos and taken ashore.
Under the new agreement between the EU and Turkey, all irregular migrants arriving in Greece will be held at detention centres. Those who do not claim asylum will be automatically returned to Turkey.
Greek officials have said that Monday's returns involved only people who had not requested asylum.
But 21-year-old Shamshaid Jutt, a Pakistani national recently arrived in Moria, told MEE that Pakistanis had not been informed that they would be returned to Turkey if they did not claim asylum, and had been prevented from doing so.
“When they went to ask for asylum [before the new EU deal], they were turned away,” Jutt said. “So when the police said to apply for asylum, they didn’t believe them. They thought it was a trick to deport them quicker.”
Jutt said that large numbers of Pakistanis at Moria protested on Sunday, the day before the deportations began, and approached police to ask for asylum but were refused.
The EU deal, parts of which first came into effect on 20 March, is designed to stop all irregular migration from Turkey to Europe.
All of those who have arrived since 20 March have been held in detention centres on Lesbos, Chios, Leros, Samos and Kos. Each asylum claim is meant to be examined individually.
Described as a one-in-one-out policy, Syrian claims that are rejected or those who do not claim asylum will be immediately returned to Turkey.
For each Syrian national returned to Turkey, one Syrian living in camps in Turkey will be resettled in Europe, with numbers capped at 72,000.
The deal aims to stem the most severe refugee crisis Europe has seen since World War II, which has left services in frontline states like Greece and Italy stretched to breaking point.
The deal, though, has been heavily criticised by aid organisations and the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, which claim that collective deportations such as this are illegal and that Turkey is not a safe destination to return refugees.
Groups of activists held a protest at the port during the deportation, chanting “EU, shame on you!”. Volunteer rescue vessels also protested in the port, holding a banner above their vessel that read “Ferries for safe passage, not for deportation.”
While Monday marked the first deportation to take place under the new deal, Lieutenant General Zacharoula Tsirigoti, chief of staff of the Hellenic Police, told reporters that 800 people had been returned from Greece to Turkey since the start of 2016 already.
Protests were also held at the weekend in Dikili as hundreds demonstrated against a plan to build a "reception centre" for those sent back from Greece.
"We definitely don't want a refugee camp in Dikili," said the town's mayor, Mustafa Tosun, according to the AP news agency.
"I myself as mayor have received no information at all from the responsible parties in Ankara regarding the migrants," Tosun told German news agency DPA on Sunday.