The first migrants deported from Greek islands under a disputed EU-Turkey deal were shipped back to Turkey in a drive to shut down the main route by which a million people fleeing war and poverty crossed the Aegean Sea in the last year.
Under the pact, criticised by refugee agencies and human rights campaigners, Ankara will take back all migrants and refugees who enter Greece illegally, including Syrians.
In return, the EU will take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and reward it with more money, early visa-free travel and progress in its EU membership negotiations.
Two Turkish-flagged passenger boats carrying 131 mostly Pakistani migrants arrived from the island of Lesbos in the Turkish town of Dikili early yesterday, accompanied by two Turkish coastguard vessels with a police helicopter buzzing overhead, a Reuters witness said. A third ship carrying 66 people, mainly Afghans, arrived there later from the island of Chios.
The EU-Turkey deal aims to discourage migrants from perilous crossings, often in small boats and dinghies, and to break the business model of human smugglers who have fuelled Europe’s biggest influx since World War Two.
EU authorities said none of those deported yesterday had requested asylum in Greece and all had left voluntarily.
“We didn’t see this morning unrest or riots. The operation was organised properly with the sufficient Frontex presence and with enough, very well organised security guarantees,” European Commission spokesman Margaritas Schinas told a news briefing in Brussels.
He was referring to the EU border management agency Frontex, which has been reinforced by national police and migration experts.
Mr Schinas said the first returns were legal although Turkey has not yet changed its regulations to extend protection to rejected asylum-seekers being sent back.
The EU said at the time of the deal that both Athens and Ankara would need to change their asylum laws — Greece to declare Turkey a “safe third country” to which rejected asylum- seekers could be sent, and Turkey to give international protection to Syrians who enter from countries other than Syria, and to non- Syrian asylum-seekers returned from Greece. Greece has done its part, but Turkey has yet to change its regulations.
Hours after the first boat of returnees set sail from Lesbos, Greek coastguard vessels rescued at least two dinghies carrying more than 50 migrants and refugees, including children and a woman in a wheelchair, trying to reach the island.
Altogether, more people arrived on the Greek islands in the 24 hours to Monday morning than were transported to Turkey, Greek authorities said, putting arrivals at 339, including 173 on Lesbos and 73 on Chios.
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