EU migrant deal runs into delay in Greece

Greek officials say they need more time to process movement of refugees

ATHENS • Greece would not be able to start sending refugees back to Turkey as scheduled from yesterday, the government said, as the country struggles to implement a key deal aimed at easing Europe's migrant crisis.

Under the agreement clinched between Brussels and Anakara last week, migrants who reach the Greek islands will be deported back to Turkey. For every Syrian returned, the EU will resettle one from a Turkish refugee camp.

The deal aims to strangle the main route used by migrants travelling to the EU and discourage people smugglers, but it has faced criticism from rights groups and thousands took to the streets of Europe in protest.

Greek premier Alexis Tsipras told his ministers on Saturday afternoon to be ready to begin deporting people the following day, as agreed, but officials said afterwards they needed more time to prepare.

"The agreement to send back new arrivals on the islands should, according to the text, enter into force on March 20," said Mr Giorgos Kyritsis, spokesman of the government coordinator for migration policy.

"But a plan like this cannot be put in place in only 24 hours."

Around 1,500 people crossed the Aegean to Greece's islands on Friday before the deal was brought in, officials said - more than double the day before and compared with several hundred a day earlier this week.

A four-month-old baby drowned when a migrant boat sank off the Turkish coast on Saturday hours before the deal came into force, Turkey's Anatolia agency reported.

Hundreds of security and legal experts - 2,300 according to Mr Tsipras - are set to arrive in Greece to help enforce the deal, described as "Herculean" by European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

Paris and Berlin have pledged to send 600 police and asylum experts to Greece, according to a joint letter seen by the Agence France-Presse.

But Greek officials said they were still waiting for the extra personnel, and without them, they would struggle to enforce the new accord.

A police source on the island of Lesbos said: "We are waiting for the staff Europe promised to be able to quickly process asylum applications - translators, lawyers, police officers - because we cannot do it alone."

Realistically, migrants will likely not start being returned to Turkey until April 4, according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key backer of the scheme.

The numbers are daunting: officials said as of Saturday, there were 47,500 migrants in Greece, including 8,200 on the islands and 10,500 massed at the Idomeni camp on the Macedonian border.

More than a million people entered Europe last year, many of them fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East and Africa.

Around 4,000 people have drowned crossing the Aegean in flimsy boats, including 400 this year alone. Those already in Greece said they considered themselves fortunate.

Ms Fatima, a Syrian woman at the port of Lesbos and her 13-year-old daughter were among some 2,500 people on Saturday who boarded a ferry bound for Kavala in northern Greece, in a push by the government to move migrants to refugee centres on the mainland.

"The authorities' goal is to empty the islands," where over 8,000 migrants are stuck, said Dr Michele Telaro of the medical charity Doctors without Borders.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'EU migrant deal runs into delay in Greece'. Print Edition | Subscribe