Greece sends more migrants to Turkey

Greece sends more migrants to Turkey

Greece sends more migrants to Turkey

A Frontex official escorts a Pakistani migrant as his documents are checked on a ferry bound for Turkey at the port of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos on April 8, 2016 - AFP photo

Greece deported a second batch of migrants to Turkey on April 8 under an EU-Turkey deal to stem mass migration to the bloc, as Germany announced a sharp drop in asylum claims.

Greek officials said two boats carrying 124 migrants – most of them Pakistani men – had been sent back across the Aegean Sea where hundreds have lost their lives in a quest to reach Europe.  

A small group of activists leapt into the water, clutching onto the anchor of the first ferry in an unsuccessful bid to stop the deportation, while a group of protesters chanted “EU, shame on you” and “Freedom for the refugees.”

Hours later, the boats arrived in the Turkish harbor town of Dikili, where security officials escorted the downcast migrants, clutching blankets and with small backpacks on their shoulders, off the vessels.

A Greek government statement said the migrants included 111 Pakistanis, four Iraqis, citizens of Bangladesh, India, Morocco and Egypt, as well as a man claiming to be of Palestinian origin.

One of the Pakistanis was not accepted by Turkish authorities at Dikili for undisclosed reasons and was returned to Lesbos, the statement said.

In a separate operation, another 97 people – mainly Pakistanis and Bangladeshis – were returned to Turkey via the land border, Greek police said.

The deportations are taking place under a deal between Turkey and the European Union, which is straining under the pressure from the unprecedented flow of migrants into its territory.

Turkey has promised to take back all irregular migrants entering Greece since March 20 while Europe has agreed to resettle one Syrian refugee directly from camps in Turkey for each Syrian deported.

The deported migrants arriving in Dikili underwent health checks and registration before they are due to be sent by bus to the northwestern province of Kırklareli on the Bulgarian border, from where they are expected to be deported back to their home country.

The threat of deportation is aimed at discouraging people from making the often deadly crossing in flimsy boats.

The transfers began April 4 with some 202 migrants returned to Turkey, but then stalled after a last-minute flurry of asylum applications.

Human rights watchdogs say the scheme is badly flawed and have raised concerns that migrants may not have the chance to apply for asylum before being deported.

While concerns remain over the deal, Germany – Europe’s top destination for refugees – said it had “got off to a good start.”

Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière announced that asylum applications had dropped 66 percent in March.

“In December 2015, it was 120,000 people, in January 90,000, in February 60,000 and in March 20,000,” he said.

De Maizière has warned that the shutdown of the Turkey-Greece route may encourage more migrants to attempt the even more dangerous Mediterranean crossing from Libya to Italy.

The drop in migrant numbers appears largely due to much-criticized border closures in the Balkans, as well as an increased clampdown by Turkey on people smugglers.

Turkish state media said this week that 400 smuggling suspects had been arrested so far in 2016, and more than 65,000 migrants intercepted at sea and on land.

While Europe appears to be getting its side of the bargain, Turkey warned the EU April 7 against breaking the promises it made in return.

“If the European Union does not take the necessary steps, then Turkey will not implement the agreement,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said.

Turkey has been promised visa-free travel for its citizens to Europe, “at the latest” by June 2016, and the revival of its long-stalled EU accession process.

Turkey is also to receive a total of 6 billion euros in financial aid up to the end of 2018 for the 2.7 million Syrian refugees it is hosting.

Rights groups have criticized these concessions as a “dirty deal,” with the EU accused of turning a blind eye to Erdoğan’s slide into authoritarianism and crackdown on press freedom.

And Amnesty International has said Turkey could not be considered a “safe country” for the return of refugees.