Economically battered Greece, for months at the epicentre of Europe’s biggest migrant crisis since the Second World War, is struggling to mount the massive logistics operation needed to process asylum applications from the many hundreds of refugees still arriving daily along its shoreline.
Turkish officials arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos yesterday to help realise the deal, which requires new arrivals from March 20 to be held until their asylum applications are processed and for those deemed ineligible to be sent back to Turkey from April 4 onwards.
“We must move very swiftly and in a co-ordinated manner over the next few days to get the best possible result,” Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras said after meeting EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos in Athens.
“Assistance in human resources must come quickly.”
Under the EU-Turkey roadmap agreed last Friday, a co-ordination structure must be created by March 25 and some 4,000 personnel, more than half from other EU member states, deployed to the islands by next week.
Mr Avramopoulos said that France, Germany and the Netherlands had already pledged logistics and personnel.
“We are at a crucial turning point. The management of the refugee crisis for Europe as a whole hinges on the progress and success of this agreement,” he said.
However, yesterday, the day after the formal start of an agreement intended to close off the main route through which 1m refugees and migrants arrived in Europe last year, authorities said 1,662 people had arrived on Greek islands by 7am, twice the official count of the day before.
Just after 4.30am, one coastguard vessel rescued 54 refugees and migrants from the open sea and brought them to the port, some of the 698 arrivals counted in Lesbos.
They staggered down the ramp, women and children first, one elderly man bundled up in blankets.
“Where are we going?” asked one Syrian woman who was travelling with her husband and daughter.
The refugees were directed to a coastguard bus that would drive them to the Moria ‘hot spot’, a centre where new arrivals are being registered and their asylum applications processed.
“We are very tired. I want to go to my family in Sweden,” said Ahmet Bayraktar, a 32-year-old accountant from Aleppo, Syria. “We’ll try, god willing.” Like others, he was unaware of the new EU-Turkey accord.
“We don’t know about this,” said Mr Bayraktar. “We’re coming directly from Syria. Everybody wants to go to the border. We don’t have the news, we don’t have electricity, we don’t have anything.”
Two hours later, just as the sun rose above the Aegean Sea, the same coastguard vessel pulled another 44 people from the water. One woman cradled a baby just a few months old.
Before Friday’s deal, migrants and refugees had been free to wander out of the camp and head to ferries to the Greek mainland, from where they would mostly head north through the Balkans towards wealthier western Europe, especially Germany.