Turkish officials arrive in Greece under migrant accord

The Moria registration centre for refugees and migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos on March 21, 2016.
The Moria registration centre for refugees and migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos on March 21, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

LESBOS, GREECE (REUTERS) - Turkish officials arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos on Monday (March 21) to help implement a deal with the European Union to tackle a migrant crisis that has tested European cohesion to its limits.

The day after the formal start of an agreement intended to close off the main route through which a million refugees and migrants arrived in Europe last year, authorities said 1,662 people had arrived on Greek islands by 7 a.m. (0500 GMT), twice the official count of the day before.

Just after 4:30 a.m., 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 arrivals 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 unemployed accountant from Aleppo, Syria. "We'll try, God willing."

Like others, he was unaware of the accord, which means new arrivals will now be kept in confinement while their asylum bids are fast-tracked. If their applications fail, they will be sent back to Turkey.

"We don't know about this," Bayraktar said. "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 run rose above the Aegean Sea, the same coastguard vessel pulled another 44 people from the water, many of them escaping conflict in Congo and Sierra Leone. One woman cradled a baby just a few months old.

They walked silently to the bus for Moria, a sprawling, gated complex of prefabricated containers and hard tents.

Before Friday's deal was reached, migrants and refugees were free to wander out of the camp and head to ferries to the mainland. Now, they will be held there until their asylum applications are processed and those who are not deemed eligible will be sent back to Turkey, starting on April 4.