DIKILI (Turkey): Greece deported a second batch of more than 200 migrants to Turkey on Friday under a controversial EU deal to stem mass migration 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.
Some 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”.
Turkey’s parliament approves accord for repatriation of Pakistanis
Hours later, the boats arrived in the Turkish harbour 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, as well as citizens of Bangladesh, India, Morocco, Egypt, and 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 Kirklareli on the Bulgarian border, from where they are expected to be deported to their home countries.
Late on Thursday, Turkey’s parliament approved a deal signed in 2010 allowing for the repatriation of Pakistani migrants, local media reported.
The threat of deportation is aimed at discouraging people from making the often deadly crossing in flimsy boats.
The transfers began on Monday with some 200 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.
Several European foreign ministers were heading on Friday to Greece and Turkey to discuss the latest developments in the migrant crisis and meet rights groups, Dutch officials said.
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 Maiziere announced that asylum applications had dropped 66 per cent 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.
Mr De Maiziere 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-criticised 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 this year 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 on Thursday against breaking the promises it had made in return.
“If the European Union does not take the necessary steps, then Turkey will not implement the agreement,” President Recip Tayyip Erdogan said.
Turkey has been promised visa-free travel for its citizens to Europe, “at the latest” by June, and the revival of its long-stalled EU accession process.
Turkey is also to receive $6.8 billion in financial aid up to the end of 2018 for the 2.7 million Syrian refugees it is hosting.
Rights groups have criticised these concessions as a “dirty deal”, with the EU accused of turning a blind eye to President Erdogan’s slide into authoritarianism and crackdown on press freedom. The Amnesty International has said Turkey cannot be considered a “safe country” for the return of refugees.
Mr Erdogan said Turkey deserved something in return for its commitment to Syrian refugees, on whom it has spent some $10bn since the Syrian conflict began in 2011.
Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2016