Police wearing masks and gloves led the new arrivals one by one from the boat to a newly-constructed reception center, consisting of two large tents surrounded by high metal railings. For around 200 people sailing into Turkish port towns from Greece on Monday, the dream of starting a new life in Europe was over.
The asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, had been ushered on to three ferries chartered by European border agency Frontex at dawn on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios. They were the first to be returned as part of a controversial new deal between the European Union and Turkey, which will see those who enter the Union illegally sent back to Turkey — a deal which rights groups say is unworkable and violates international law.
Even as the returns began, more migrants arrived on smugglers' boats into Greece: 339 of them by 7.30am Monday on Lesbos alone, according to Greek authorities.
The first Frontex-chartered vessel sailed from Lesbos and docked at the western Turkish town of Dikili around 9.20am, after pausing offshore in the morning sunshine as a much smaller coast guard patrol boat circled and a helicopter made repeated passes overhead.
A heavy police presence, including officers in riot gear, watched over proceedings, and local officials gathered for a photo opportunity with the new arrivals, most of whom will likely go on to be deported to their countries of origin. Authorities attempted to block the view of assembled local and international media by hanging blue tarpaulins from a razor wire-topped fence surrounding the port.
Local reaction to migrants being returned to Dikili was largely unfavorable, and a small protest was held in the town's main square on Saturday. But a handful of others holding welcoming signs stationed themselves among camera crews by the port.
A second Lesbos boat arrived around 11am to less ceremony, and a third from Chios two hours later. Greek authorities said a total of 202 mostly male migrants had been returned to Turkey on Monday — 136 from Lesbos and 66 from Chios — none of whom had applied for asylum there. A total of 132 were Pakistani and 42 were from Afghanistan, with the remainder made of Iranians, Indians, Bangladeshis, and others. Two Syrians returned voluntarily, authorities said.
Around 700 Pakistanis, mainly single men, were taken to the closed Moria camp on Lesbos last week as authorities attempted to separate migrants who arrived before and after the EU-Turkey deal came into effect.
The arrivals in Dikili were processed then packed on to a number of white buses. It was not immediately clear where they were being taken. Turkish officials have said Syrians will be sent to refugee camps or allowed to reunite with relatives in Turkey, while other nationalities will ultimately be deported.
The deal is aimed at stemming the unprecedented number of asylum seekers traveling to Europe in an attempt to escape war and poverty, which was more than a million last year, and so far this year more than 170,000. The vast majority of those made the short, but often deadly, sea crossing from Turkey to Greece. More than 700 people have drowned or gone missing so far this year.
Under the terms of the deal, people who reached Greece illegally after March 20 will be returned to Turkey if they do not make a claim for asylum or if their claim is denied. For each Syrian sent back, the EU will resettle another Syrian from within Turkey up to a quota of 72,000, with those who have not attempted to cross illegally prioritized. German officials said Monday that the first group of 16 Syrians had now arrived in the country.
In return, Turkey will receive €3 billion in aid, have its bid to become part of the EU sped up, and get visa concessions for its citizens.
The buildup to Monday's deportations has been characterized by a lack of clarity over exactly how they would be enacted. Greece had requested some 2,300 European experts — including migration officers, translators, and soldiers — to assist in implementation, but so far fewer than 200 had arrived, the Greek government said.
Rights groups have expressed concern that amid the chaos and the new deal's fast-track asylum program, claims will not be processed in accordance with international law, which requires full individual assessments as well as time to consult a lawyer, gather supporting documents, and appeal rejections. It is not clear whether those deported on Monday understood their rights or were given the opportunity to do so. Those likely to be deported to Afghanistan — mired in conflict since the US-led invasion of 2001 — will be of particular concern.
Over the weekend a person familiar with the asylum processes inside Moria camp on Lesbos told VICE News that interviews for asylum claims and the Europe-wide resettlement program had been repeatedly delayed because only a "handful" of overwhelmed officials were there to deal with them.
"In the current chaos Greece absolutely lacks facilities and staff to give full and fair access to asylum claims," said Gauri Van Gulik, deputy Europe director at Amnesty International. "They say we're going to give each person an individual assessment, but as things currently stand we don't see how that's possible."
Turkey currently hosts around 2.7 million Syrian refugees, but a number of rights groups have expressed concern over its status as a "safe country of origin", after multiple accounts allegations of authorities forcing refugees to return to conflict-stricken Syria, including a recent Amnesty International report which said thousands had been subjected to the treatment.
VICE News has previously documented coerced return to Syria, as well as arbitrary detainment of Syrian shipwreck survivors, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has even claimed Turkish soldiers have shot people dead on the border as they attempted to enter the country. Turkey has repeatedly denied all such allegations.
UNHCR expressed concern that the deal lacked legal safeguards, while Amnesty described it as a "flagrant violation of EU and international law".
Meanwhile, the deal has done little to discourage the flows of asylum seekers to Greece. More than 300 people had arrived on Lesbos as of 7.30am on Monday morning, according to Greek government statistics, joining the more than 150,000 who entered the country by sea so far this year.
Many of those are now stranded there, trapped when the Balkan countries closed their borders and blocked passage to northern Europe. More than 52,000 asylum seekers are now in Greece, with 3,300 on Lesbos alone. Conditions are deteriorating fast, and aid workers say camps are becoming increasingly overcrowded. In Moria, more than 40 people are now being held in single rooms and scores more are sleeping outside in flimsy tents or with only a blanket for warmth. Lines for food snake back through the camp and many are forced to wait hours to receive a meal.
Harriet Salem reported from Lesbos.
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