Amid protests, Greece on Friday resumed deportations of refugees and migrants from its islands to Turkey after a four-day pause, sending back 124 people on two boats from Lesbos to a Turkish port.
The EU-Turkey deal, which aims to deter illegal migration, has faced several setbacks and mounting criticism in its first week of implementation. Earlier this week, 202 migrants were sent back to Turkey.
Before the first boat left Lesbos on Friday, four activists jumped into the sea to try to obstruct the operation — swimming to the front of the chartered ferry and grabbing the anchor chain — and were detained by the coast guard. The second boat made the journey without incident.
Officers from the European Union’s border protection agency escored the migrants to the boats. In the Turkish port of Dikili, health and migration officials checked the passengers amid heavy security. The migrants were then whisked onto police-escorted buses heading to a deportation center in Kirklareli, near the border with Bulgaria.
Some 4,000 migrants and refugees who reached Greek islands from nearby Turkey after March 20 are being held in detention camps to be screened for deportation.
The returns have been held up by delays in processing asylum claims by overwhelmed Greek authorities who are also preparing to deal with applications across the country by some 50,000 migrants and refugees promised places in a slow-moving EU relocation scheme.
A Turkish official said his country was prepared to receive higher numbers with an array of 1,000 professionals ranging from doctors to migration officials and police deployed in Dikili. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said that they had expected to receive 2,050 migrants on Friday.
He said those returned Friday were primarily Afghan and Pakistani nationals. The were also four Iraqis and one each from Egypt, Morocco, Bangladesh and the Palestinian Territories. All are to be processed for deportation within two weeks.
Returns from Greece to Turkey are expected to resume next week, according to the Turkish official.
On Greek islands, protests continued at overcrowded detention camps.
Police cleared the main port on the island of Chios overnight, where scores of migrants had been camped out for a week after pushing their way out of a detention camp. Police scuffled with groups Greek protesters staging rival demonstrations in support of and in opposition to the migrants.
The human rights group Amnesty International, which interviewed dozens of detainess on Chios and Lesbos, said people were being held “arbitrarily in appalling conditions.”
“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,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty’s deputy Europe director.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel robustly defended the European Union’s migrant deal with Turkey on Friday as polls pointed to deep scepticism at home about the accord, which human rights groups have criticised.
Merkel insists that the deal with Turkey, which hosts some 2.7 million Syrians, is the key to reducing the flow of migrants to Europe.
The first migrants were sent back from Greece on Monday.
Story by the Associated Press.