The first three boats removing migrants from Greece under the terms of a controversial European Union (EU) deal with Turkey arrived in the Turkish port of Dikili on Monday, with at least two Syrians among the more than 200 people to have been deported.
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 EU 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. Turkey will send returned migrants back to their origin countries, which NGOs have warned means in many cases breaching international law on non-refoulement — the principle that people must not be sent back to a home country where they face persecution.
The vast majority of the 161 migrants on the first two boats to arrive in Dikili from the Greek island of Lesbos were from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Morocco, and in the process of being deported prior to the negotiation of the deal. Of the two Syrians aboard, one was reportedly a woman who travelled voluntarily.
The third boat arrived from the Greek island of Chios, where a coastguard official told Reuters 66 people, most of them Afghans, had been aboard.
Turkish EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir on Monday said Syrian migrants arriving from Greece would be sent to the southern Turkish city of Osmaniye.
In an interview with Haberturk TV, Bozkir also said that Syrians taken from camps in Turkey would be sent to Germany, from where they will be sent on to other countries.
Meanwhile, German officials said the first group of 16 Syrian migrants had arrived in Germany from Turkey under the terms of the deal.
The aim of the EU-Turkey deal is purportedly to discourage migrants from perilous crossings, often in small boats and dinghies, and to break the business model of human smugglers who have fueled Europe's biggest migration wave since World War Two.
A few hours after the first boat of returnees set sail from Lesbos, Greek coast guard patrol vessels rescued at least two dinghies carrying more than 50 migrants and refugees, including children and a woman in a wheelchair, trying to reach the island.
"We are just going to try our chance. It is for our destiny. We are dead anyway," said Firaz, 31, a Syrian Kurd from the province of Hasakah who was travelling with his cousin.
Asked if he was aware that the Greeks were sending people back, he said: "I heard maybe Iranians, Afghans. I didn't hear they were sending back Syrians to Turkey... At least I did what I could. I'm alive. That's it."
A group of 47 mainly Pakistani men were also intercepted by the Turkish coast guard on Monday and taken to a holding center next to Dikili's port, a Reuters witness said.
Under the pact, the EU will resettle thousands of legal Syrian refugees directly from Turkey — one for each Syrian returned from the Greek islands. German police said the first Syrian refugees arrived by plane on Monday under the deal.
A key premise of the agreement that all "irregular migrants," including asylum seekers, will be sent back to Turkey has been widely criticized by human rights activists, who say the country has a poor track record on refugee rights. Amnesty International says it has evidence suggesting authorities have forcibly returned hundreds of Syrians to their war-torn homeland, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Turkish soldiers have been shooting people dead on the border.
"The whole [EU] deal rests on the assumption that Turkey is a safe third country, which is not the case," Gauri Van Gulik, deputy Europe director at Amnesty International, told VICE News last week.
Just hours after the deal came into effect at midnight on March 20, Amnesty documented the case of a group of Afghans who said they were forced to sign documents by the Turkish authorities and board a plane back to Kabul.
Under the new agreement, all migrants who arrived after the deadline will technically still have the opportunity to make an asylum claim in Europe. Yet the deal says that their claim can be rejected as "inadmissible" if they have arrived from a "safe-third country" or a "first country" where they receive "sufficient protection."
As the vast majority of migrants have come to Europe via Turkey — which is expected to soon be officially recognized by Greece as a safe country for asylum seekers despite the concerns of rights groups — that effectively means there is likely to be a blanket deportation of all new arrivals.
In Dikili, a few dozen police and immigration officials waited outside a small white tent on the quayside as the returned migrants disembarked one by one, before being photographed and having their fingerprints taken behind security screening.
The returnees from Lesbos were mostly from Pakistan and some from Bangladesh and they had not applied for asylum, said Ewa Moncure, a spokeswoman for EU border agency Frontex.
Asked if Syrians would be returned, she said: "At some point, but I don't know when."
Turkish EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir said there were no Syrians in the first group coming from Greece, but that when they did begin to arrive they would be sent to the southern city of Osmaniye, around 25 miles from the Syrian border.
For non-Syrians, Turkey would apply to their home countries and send them back systematically, Bozkir said in an interview with Turkish broadcaster Haberturk.
Turkey denies mistreating refugees and insists it is meeting its international obligations. The EU was determined to get the program under way on schedule despite such doubts because of strong political pressure in northern Europe to deter migrants from attempting the journey.
There were small protests as the returns got underway.
On Lesbos, a small group of protesters chanted "Shame on you!" when the migrant boats set sail as the sun rose over the Aegean. Volunteer rescuers aboard a nearby boat hoisted a banner that read: "Ferries for safe passage, not for deportation."
Each migrant was accompanied on Lesbos by a plainclothes Frontex officer. They had been transported in a nighttime operation from the island's holding centre to the port. Greek riot police squads also boarded the boats.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and rights groups have said the deal between the European Union and Turkey lacks legal safeguards. Amnesty International has called it "a historic blow to human rights", and was sending monitors to Lesbos and Chios on Monday.
More than 3,300 migrants and refugees are on Lesbos. About 2,600 people are held at the Moria centre, a sprawling complex of prefabricated containers, 600 more than its stated capacity. Of those, 2,000 have made asylum claims, UNHCR said.
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