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Greece Restarts Migrant Deportations Amid Protest and Despair

More than 120 people were returned to Turkey from the Greek islands on Friday morning as Amnesty International slammed "appalling conditions" in Greek detention centres.

by VICE News
Apr 8 2016, 3:35pm

Migrants disembark at Dikili, Turkey on April 8, 2016. Photo by Mert Cakir/EPA

A second wave of migrants was deported from Greece to Turkey on Friday amid unrest and protest, as Amnesty International slammed "appalling conditions" in overcrowded detention centers on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios.

More than 120 people were returned to Turkey from Lesbos, Samos, and Kos on Friday morning, while at least 149 new migrants traveled in the other direction. Protesters on Lesbos leapt into the sea and swam beside a boat carrying migrants in an attempt to stop it from leaving port.

The first deportations took place last Monday when 202 mostly Pakistanis and Afghani migrants were ferried from Lesbos and Chios to the Turkish town of Dikili. Greek authorities subsequently suspended operations for four days because of confusion over who was eligible to deport.

The deportations are taking place under a deal agreed between the European Union (EU) and Turkey in March aimed at stemming the unprecedented number of asylum seekers traveling to Europe in an attempt to escape war and poverty. More than 1 million people made the journey in 2015, and at least 170,000 have done so since January.

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

Under the terms of the agreement, people arriving in 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 to Turkey, the EU will resettle another Syrian currently in Turkey up to a quota of 72,000, with priority given to those who have not attempted to enter Europe illegally.

In return, Turkey will receive a total of 6 billion euros ($6.83 billion) in aid up until the end of 2018 to help care for Syrian refugees within its borders, have its long-stalled bid to become part of the EU sped up, and get visa-free travel to Europe for its citizens by June 2016.

But while the flow of asylum seekers to Greece has now slowed down, it has certainly not halted. As of 7.30am on Friday morning 149 migrants had arrived on the Greek islands, the vast majority on the island of Chios, according to government statistics.

Many recent arrivals are now stranded in Greece, trapped when Balkan countries closed their borders and blocked passage to northern Europe. More than 52,000 asylum seekers are now in the country, with 3,300 on Lesbos alone.

Conditions there are deteriorating fast, and aid workers say camps are becoming increasingly overcrowded. In Moria camp on Lesbos, 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.

'On the edge of Europe, refugees are trapped with no light at the end of the tunnel'

Amnesty International said on Thursday that refugees and migrants were being held arbitrarily in "appalling conditions" at two camps-turned-detention centers on Lesbos and Chios. The facilities are housing around 4,200 people, including mothers with young children, the seriously ill, and other vulnerable groups, it said in a new report, adding that the detainees had "virtually no access" to legal aid and limited access to services and support. Last Thursday, hundreds being held on the island of Chios pulled down a razor wire-topped fence surrounding the camp and marched to the harbor.

"On the edge of Europe, refugees are trapped with no light at the end of the tunnel," said Gauri van Gulik, Deputy Director for Europe at Amnesty International. "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."

The buildup to Monday's deportations was 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 fewer than 200 had arrived by the beginning of this week, the Greek government said.

The United Nations' refugee body UNHCR has expressed concern that the deal lacks legal safeguards, while rights groups have repeatedly argued that amid the chaos and the new deal's fast-track asylum program, claims may 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 so far were given the opportunity to do so or even understood their rights. Those likely to be deported to Afghanistan — mired in conflict since the US-led invasion of 2001 — will be of particular concern.

Related: The Dream of a New Life in Europe Is Over for These Migrants Arriving in Turkey

VICE News has previously documented coerced return to Syria, as well as arbitrary detainment of Syrian shipwreck survivors. Turkey has repeatedly denied all such allegations.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that if the EU didn't fulfil its pledges, then Ankara would not continue with deal. "There are precise conditions. If the EU does not take the necessary steps, then Turkey will not implement the agreement," Erdogan told reporters, according to AFP.

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 separate Amnesty International report which said thousands had been subjected to the treatment.

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