Greece on Friday resumed deportations of migrants to Turkey after a four-day pause, despite mounting desperation among refugees and attempts by activists to stop the two boats from leaving Lesbos with 124 people onboard.
Before the first boat left the island, four activists jumped into the sea to try to obstruct the operation — swimming to the front of the chartered ferry and grabbing the anchor chain — and were detained by the coast guard. The second boat made the journey without incident.
The EU-Turkey deal, which aims to deter illegal migration, has faced several setbacks and sharp criticism in its first week of implementation and has left many would-be migrants in limbo along the coast of Turkey.
“There is no legal or adequate way for us to go to Europe so people are either waiting for the boats or turning back to Syria,” says Mohammed, a Syrian who is stranded in the Turkish coastal town of Izmir. “People are shocked and scared.”
Mohammed, who only gave his first name because he might decide to go back to his hometown which is under the control of the Islamic State group, says he told his family to stay put.
“If any Syrian asked me today, ‘should I make the journey?’ I’d say go back and die in your land with honor,” said the scrawny young man. “Europe wants you dead. Turkey wants you dead.”
The deportation of the 124 people on Friday followed the return of 202 migrants earlier this week under the EU-Turkey deal which aims to return migrants who don’t apply for asylum from Greece to Turkey. In exchange, the EU will take in some Syrians directly from Turkey, provide funds for Ankara, visa-free travel for Turks and accelerated EU membership talks.
Officers from the European Union’s border protection agency escorted the migrants to the boats on Lesbos. In the Turkish port of Dikili, health and migration officials checked the passengers amid heavy security before they were whisked onto police-escorted buses heading to a deportation center in Kirklareli province, near the border with Bulgaria.
Some 4,000 migrants who reached Greek islands from nearby Turkey after March 20 are being held in detention camps to be screened for deportation. But the returns have been held up by delays in processing asylum claims by overwhelmed Greek authorities who are also preparing to deal with applications across the country by some 50,000 refugees who have been promised places in a slow-moving EU relocation scheme.
A Turkish official said his country was prepared to receive higher numbers with an array of 1,000 professionals ranging from doctors to migration officials and police deployed in Dikili. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said that they had expected to receive 2,050 migrants on Friday.
He said those returned Friday were primarily Afghan and Pakistani nationals. There were also four Iraqis and one each from Egypt, Morocco, Bangladesh and the Palestinian Territories. All are to be processed for deportation within two weeks.
Returns from Greece to Turkey are expected to resume next week, according to the Turkish official.
Turkey’s coast guard rescued over 500 migrants in the Aegean Sea during the first week of April, according to a written statement by the governor’s office of the western province of Izmir. In total, 23,147 migrants have been rescued since the beginning of the year.
A journey to Europe now carries a high risk of failure but staying put is no more attractive. Newcomers to Turkey report challenges registering with the authorities and know their chances of being resettled from here to Europe are slim.
Nour Oghli, who studied law in Damascus before fleeing to Lebanon and then to Turkey, says she remains determined to make the journey to Europe in the hope of reaching Germany and fulfilling her dream of becoming a judge. In the past ten weeks, she and her family have sought to cross to the Greek islands three times only to be intercepted on the Aegean by the Turkish coast guard.
Smugglers, she said, are now offering to take them for half-price because business is bad but her mother is too apprehensive to take the offer. Oghli, who has been unable to move her legs after her university was bombed and is in a wheelchair, says she would even consider going without her family if she can find a way.
“If they catch me, I’ll throw myself overboard,” she said.
On Greek islands, protests continued at overcrowded detention camps.
Police cleared the main port on the island of Chios overnight, where scores of migrants had been camped out for a week after pushing their way out of a detention camp. Police scuffled with groups of Greek protesters staging rival demonstrations in support of and in opposition to the migrants.
The human rights group Amnesty International, which interviewed dozens of detainees on Chios and Lesbos, said people were being held “arbitrarily in appalling conditions.”
“A setup that is so flawed, rushed and ill-prepared is ripe for mistakes, trampling the rights and well-being of some of the most vulnerable people,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty’s deputy Europe director.