Migrants Keep Coming — And Dying — as EU Deportation Deal With Turkey Takes Effect

Just hours after an agreement aimed at stymieing the flow of migrants into Europe took effect, VICE News saw an overcrowded boat arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos with two lifeless bodies aboard.
March 20, 2016, 4:24pm
Des réfugiés arrivent à bord d'un bateau pneumatique depuis la Turquie sur l'île grecque de Lesbos. (Photo by Kay Nietfeld/EPA)

Early Sunday morning, smugglers in Turkey packed Hamid, a refugee from Idlib, Syria, onto a small rubber boat with around 70 other people and directed him to steer toward Greece. He had no experience navigating at sea, let alone an overcrowded vessel in predawn darkness. By the time his boat reached the shore of the Greek island of Lesbos, two men aboard had stopped breathing.

"There were too many people, too many," he sobbed, staring at the deflated vessel still floating by the shore. "I was the captain."

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On the beach, a woman flung herself over her husband's lifeless body and wailed as medics administered CPR in a failed effort to revive him. A lifeguard who helped pull migrants off the boat described the crammed vessel as a "pile of people."

The tragic incident occurred just hours after a new deal between the European Union and Turkey took effect at midnight on Sunday. The agreement, reached on Friday, is aimed at stymieing the flow of migrants into Europe, but confusion remains about how exactly it will be implemented.

Related: Investigating the Fatal Sinking of a Refugee Boat and the Brutal Treatment of Those Who Survived

More than 1 million people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other poor and war-torn countries have fled to Europe over the past year, with many arriving in Greece via flimsy rubber dinghies from Turkey. The movement of displaced people, the largest since World War II, has plunged Europe into crisis over how to handle its border controls. Most migrants seek to pass through Greece and the Balkans to Germany and other favored destinations in Western Europe.

In a press release issued on Friday, the European Commission said that, as of Sunday, all "irregular migrants" arriving in Greece by boat would be deported back to Turkey.

In return, the EU has said it will accept thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and reward Ankara with more money — up to 6 billion euros to fund access to food, shelter, education, and health care for Syrian refugees through 2018 — as well as early visa-free travel for Turks, and progress in Turkey's EU membership negotiations. The EU border agency Frontex will receive 60 million euros to fund returns of migrants to Turkey.

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Although the European Commission said that all individuals who seek asylum in Greece will retain the right to have their applications reviewed "on a case by case basis" in line with international law, human rights groups have expressed concern about violating a rule that says refugees can only be sent back to countries that offer "sufficient protection."

"There is no case law to establish exactly what this means," said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. He noted that there are "serious questions" about whether Turkey is a safe country for refugees, and raised concerns over the viability and fairness of an expedited system to assess asylum claims.

Related: In Photos: Inside Greece's Idomeni Camp, Where 13,000 Migrants Are Stuck in Purgatory

"It appears that the European Union is attempting to find loopholes [in international law]," he said. "That is, to adhere to the letter of the law but not the spirit of it."

There are also still many lingering questions about how the deal will be implemented. According to the Associated Press, Greek authorities have said they're not sure any migrants entering the country will be processed and returned to Turkey before Monday. Greece is also reportedly awaiting the arrival of 2,300 European experts — including migration officers, translators, and soldiers — who are supposed to help with operations.

A previous resettlement scheme, designed to distribute refugees across EU member states, has floundered amid bickering over quotas. More than 5,000 refugees were supposed to have been resettled by the end of 2015, but so far only 779 have found homes.

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Meanwhile, boatloads of migrants have continued their attempts to cross the Aegean and the Mediterranean Seas. At least a dozen boats, each containing around 50 migrants, arrived the on Greek islands on Sunday morning alone. Another 900 migrants were rescued from the Strait of Sicily on Saturday in four separate operations, with at least one fatality confirmed. More than 4,000 migrants have died in attempted sea crossings since the start of the crisis, including at least 467 who have died so far this year.

Martin Xuereb Director of Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a global search and rescue NGO, said that the new measures, which include increased cooperation between NATO and the Turkish coast guard, may also lead smugglers to use more dangerous routes to Europe.

"We've seen an increase in the number of people travelling in black light vests [as opposed to orange and yellow visibility jackets] showing there are growing fears over being caught," he said. "People are [already] taking great risks crossing the sea… if forced down more dangerous routes then we will probably see more casualties."

Yidsser Ammar, an Iraqi from Mosul who arrived on Lesbos in the early hours of Sunday, said the EU-Turkey deal would not deter others like him from attempting to reach Greece.

"We knew about this change of rules but we came anyway," he said. "I just hope we are not too late, that Europe will recognize our suffering and take us. "

Related: Europe's Migrant Crisis Is a Crisis of Conscience, Whether Leaders Admit It or Not

Greek authorities have begun to clear migrants who arrived and registered prior to Sunday off of Lesbos and other islands. At around noon on Sunday, around 1,450 people voluntarily agreed to board a cruise liner headed for Kavala, a seaport on mainland Greece.

"They are trying to empty the island before this new agreement starts, then everyone who arrives here, or remains here, will deported directly to Turkey," said Raul Torras, a shift leader at an NGO camp that currently houses around 700 asylum seekers from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Torras said most people in his camp fear that their asylum claims will be rejected, so many have not registered with Greek authorities in an attempt to avoid deportation.

"We have been expecting this to happen for some time," Torras said of the EU-Turkey deal, "and now that moment is here."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem