Greece in countdown for controversial EU-Turkey migrant returns

4 min

Lesbos (Greece) (AFP)

Greek and EU authorities on Sunday fine-tuned an operation to expel to Turkey hundreds of migrants denied asylum in a landmark deal criticised by rights groups.

Officials declined to comment on the details of the operation, which is believed to begin early Monday from the Greek island of Lesbos where there are more than 3,300 refugees and migrants.

The operation could involve other Aegean islands with major refugee and migrant populations such as Chios, where agents of EU border agency Frontex were seen arriving on Sunday, an AFP reporter said.

Greek state news agency ANA has said 750 migrants would be sent back between Monday and Wednesday in the first wave of deportations.

The Greek government has not denied the report.

ANA said the migrants would be sent back from Lesbos to the Turkish port of Dikili, adding that Frontex had chartered two Turkish leisure vessels for the operation.

Police sources on Lesbos on Sunday said there had been a flurry of last-minute asylum applications by refugees and migrants seeking to avoid expulsion.

Under the EU deal, all migrants who arrived in Greece after March 20 face being sent back to Turkey -- although the deal calls for each case to be examined individually.

Many have complained of not being given sufficient time and access to the asylum procedure.

Anas al-Bakhr, a Syrian engineer from Homs, said police marked his date of arrival on Chios as March 20 -- the day the EU-Turkey migration deal nominally took effect -- even though he arrived on the 19th.

"They said the computers were broken that day", Anas told AFP.

- Preparations in Turkey -

On the other side of the Aegean Sea, work is under way on a centre to host those sent back to the Turkish tourist resort of Cesme.

Another is being created in Dikili, opposite Lesbos -- the island that has handled the bulk of the influx of people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Turkish media reports say the Turkish Red Crescent is also preparing to open a refugee camp with capacity for 5,000 people further inland in Manisa.

The deal is the latest attempt to stem the number of people in search of a new life in Europe. More than a million migrants entered last year, and over 150,000 people have crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece in 2016.

For every Syrian refugee sent back under the deal, another Syrian refugee will be resettled from Turkey to the EU, with the numbers capped at 72,000.

The operation to resettle Syrians to Europe also starts Monday, with the first destinations expected to be Germany, the Netherlands and Finland.

The deal has faced strong opposition from rights groups, and senior UN migration official Peter Sutherland said it was "absolutely" illegal.

"Collective deportations without having regard to the individual rights of those who claim to be refugees are illegal," he told BBC radio.

Austria's president Heinz Fischer said he was "sceptical" this would stop more migrants coming to Europe, and voiced concern about human rights abuses in Turkey.

"There are many things happening in Turkey right now that I don't like," he told Austrian public radio O1.

Amnesty International has accused Turkey of illegally forcing groups of 100 Syrians to return every day, saying the alleged expulsions showed "fatal flaws" in the migrant deal agreed with the EU.

Turkey rejects the charge, insisting it still adopts the open-door policy that for the last few years has allowed any Syrian fleeing civil war back home to seek refuge.

There are more than 52,000 refugees and migrants currently in Greece, according to official figures.

With most facilities already full, authorities are trying to create space for an additional 30,000 people in new camps.

Adding to the urgency, sporadic violence has broken out between ethnic migrant groups in the overcrowded camps.

But many migrants are reluctant to move to organised centres, fearing that they will not be allowed to leave.

The EU this week will also unveil plans to overhaul its asylum system as the current "Dublin rules" -- which place a huge burden on the main migrant entry points such as Greece and Italy -- have effectively been rendered obsolete by the huge flow of humanity drawn to wealthy Germany and Scandinavia.