LESBOS • The first wave of migrants sent back from the Greek island of Lesbos began arriving in Turkey yesterday under a disputed EU scheme aimed at closing the main route by which a million people have poured across the Aegean Sea to Greece in the past year.
Under a deal denounced by refugee agencies and human rights campaigners, Ankara will take back all migrants and refugees who enter Greece illegally, including Syrians, in return for the European Union taking in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and rewarding it with more money, early visa-free travel and progress in its EU membership negotiations.
Two Turkish-flagged passenger boats carrying more than 130 migrants arrived in Dikili yesterday, accompanied by two Turkish coast guard vessels, with a police helicopter buzzing overhead. Each migrant was accompanied by a plainclothes Frontex (EU border agency) officer. Greek riot police were also on the boats.
A Greek coast guard official in Chios said 66 people, mostly Afghans, were also sent to Turkey on a third boat. Most of the returnees from Lesbos were from Pakistan and some from Bangladesh, and they had not applied for asylum, said Frontex spokesman Ewa Moncure.
The aim of the EU-Turkey deal is to discourage migrants from perilous crossings, often in small craft, and to thwart human smugglers who have fuelled Europe's biggest migration wave since World War II.
A few hours after the first boat of returnees left Lesbos, Greek coast guard patrol vessels rescued more than 50 migrants and refugees, including children and a woman in a wheelchair, trying to reach the island in at least two dinghies.
A group of 47 mainly Pakistani men were also intercepted by the Turkish coast guard and taken to a holding centre next to Dikili's port.
Turkish EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir said there were no Syrians in the first group returning, but that when they did begin to arrive, they would be sent to the southern city of Osmaniye, about 40km from the Syrian border. For non-Syrians, Turkey would apply to their home countries and send them back systematically, he told Turkish broadcaster Haberturk.
Rights groups and some European politicians have challenged the legality of the deal, questioning whether Turkey has sufficient safeguards in place to defend refugees' rights and whether it can be considered safe for the returning migrants. Turkey insists it is meeting its international obligations. The EU was determined to get the programme under way on schedule despite such doubts because of strong political pressure in northern Europe to deter migrants from attempting the journey.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and rights groups say the deal lacks legal safeguards, and Amnesty International calls it "a historic blow to human rights". More than 3,300 migrants and refugees are in Lesbos. About 2,600 people are at the Moria centre, 600 more than its stated capacity. Of those, 2,000 have made asylum claims, the UN body says.
Meanwhile, German police said the first legal Syrian refugees arrived by plane from Turkey yesterday under the EU deal.