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April 5, 2016

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EU deal sees Greek migrants land in Turkey

THE first migrants deported from Greek islands under a disputed European Union-Turkey deal were shipped back to Turkey yesterday in a drive to shut down the main route by which a million people fleeing war and poverty crossed the Aegean Sea in the last year.

Under the pact criticized by refugee agencies and human rights campaigners, Ankara will take back all migrants and refugees who enter Greece illegally, including Syrians.

In return, the EU will take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and reward it with more money, early visa-free travel and progress in its EU membership negotiations.

Two Turkish-flagged passenger boats carrying 131 mostly Pakistani migrants arrived from the island of Lesbos in the Turkish town of Dikili early yesterday, accompanied by two Turkish coast guard vessels with a police helicopter buzzing overhead, a witness said.

A third ship carrying 66 people, mainly Afghans, arrived later from the island of Chios.

The EU-Turkey deal aims to discourage migrants from perilous crossings, often in small boats and dinghies, and to break the business model of human smugglers who have fuelled Europe’s biggest influx since World War II.

EU authorities said none of those deported yesterday had requested asylum in Greece and all had left voluntarily.

“We didn’t see this morning unrest or riots. The operation was organized properly with the sufficient Frontex presence and with enough, very well organized security guarantees,” European Commission spokesman Margaritas Schinas said in Brussels. He was referring to the EU border management agency Frontex, which has been reinforced by national police and migration experts.

Schinas insisted the first returns were legal although Turkey has not yet changed its regulations to extend protection to rejected asylum seekers being sent back.

The EU said at the time of the deal that both Athens and Ankara would need to change their asylum laws — Greece to declare Turkey a “safe third country” to which rejected asylum seekers could be sent, and Turkey to give international protection to Syrians who enter from countries other than Syria, and to non-Syrian asylum seekers returned from Greece. Greece has done its part, but Turkey has yet to change its regulations.

A few hours after the first boat of returnees set sail from Lesbos, Greek coast guard vessels rescued at least two dinghies carrying over 50 migrants and refugees, including children and a woman in a wheelchair, trying to reach the island.

Altogether, more people arrived on the Greek islands in the 24 hours to yesterday morning than were shipped to Turkey, officials said, putting total arrivals at 339, including 173 on Lesbos and 73 on Chios.

“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 yesterday and taken to a holding center next to Dikili’s port, a 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 16 Syrian refugees arrived in Hanover by plane from Istanbul yesterday under the deal, and as many were due to arrive later on a second flight. The EC said more resettlement flights were due to Finland yesterday and the Netherlands today.

Rights groups and some European politicians have challenged the legality of the deal, questioning whether Turkey has sufficient safeguards in place to defend refugees’ rights and whether it can be considered safe for them.


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