Greece insists refugee deportations will begin despite doubts over EU-Turkey deal

Operation due to begin on Monday on islands of Lesbos and Chios, but questions remain as to how it will be implemented

Greek officials have insisted that hundreds of migrants and refugees will be deported to Turkey on Monday as part of a controversial EU deal, despite persistent doubts over how the agreement will be implemented.

The operation is due to begin early on Monday morning on Chios and Lesbos, the Aegean islands that were the gateway for most of the 1.1 million Syrians who entered Europe last year. More than 52,000 men, women and children are now stranded in Greece, including 3,300 on Lesbos, following the decisions of Balkan countries to close their borders.

Police sources on Lesbos said there had been a flurry of last-minute asylum applications on Sunday by people seeking to avoid expulsion. Many complained of not being given enough time or access to the asylum procedure.

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

“They said the computers were broken that day”, he told AFP.

The government’s migration spokesperson insisted, however, that some deportations would still go ahead.

“There are more than 500 who haven’t asked for asylum,” Giorgos Kyritsis said. “A symbolic number of around 500 will be sent back, but we won’t send people back just to send people back. It may be 450 or it may be 550. There have to be some filters. There has to be a selection process.”

Questions remain over how the selection and deportation process will work.


Deportees are expected to travel back across the Aegean to the Turkish port of Dikili on vessels operated by Frontex, the EU border agency. By Sunday, however, it was still unclear whether sufficient numbers of Frontex personnel had arrived in Greece to implement the plan.

“At this point we are treating everything as rumour,” Boris Cheshirkov, the UN refugee agency’s spokesman in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, said on Sunday. “All we know is that there are 2,800 people in Moria [the island’s detention camp] and the vast majority have expressed a desire to seek asylum.”

Nearly 6,000 people have been registered on the Greek islands since the EU-Turkey deal was brokered on 18 March. Of that number, those who have failed to apply for asylum, or are deemed not to be in need of international protection, are expected to be readmitted to Turkey, which is designated a “safe third country” under the terms of the deal.

Deportees are expected to travel back across the Aegean to Turkey on vessels operated by Frontex, the EU border agency
Deportees are expected to travel back across the Aegean to Turkey on vessels operated by Frontex, the EU border agency. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

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

That operation also starts Monday, with the first destinations expected to be Germany, the Netherlands and Finland.

Human rights groups have condemned the deal, saying it undermines the UN’s 1951 refugee convention, one of the continent’s seminal policy achievements after the second world war.

Opposition to the accord was underscored by Peter Sutherland, the UN secretary general’s special representative for international migration and development, who said on Saturday that collective deportations would automatically be deemed illegal if asylum applications weren’t properly considered.

In light of claims by an NGO that Turkey has already been pushing Syrians back over the border to their home country, he also said none could be deported from Europe without guarantees that their rights would be protected.

Some Greeks officials also conceded that Athens did not regard Turkey as a safe third country to which refugees should be returned. “Don’t think for a moment that we will be sending a Kurd back to Turkey or a gay guy back to Iran,” said one. “This government has values, starting with humanity and decency towards refugees.”

On Sunday, the mood in Dikili, the Turkish seaside town where the first deportees are due to arrive on Monday, was apprehensive.

Next to the small harbour, young men gathered signatures for a petition denouncing any plans to resettle refugees in the area. “Syrians refugees should just go away,” said Ahmet Dikbas, who claimed to have encouraged 4,000 out of the town’s 40,000 residents to sign.

Diliki residents protest against the expected arrival of deportees from Greece
Diliki residents protest against the expected arrival of deportees from Greece. Their placards read ‘No to a refugee camp!’ and ‘Don’t touch my Dikili!’ Photograph: Mehmet Guzel/AP

He and his friends stood next to a huge stage branded with the slogan: “Dikili does not want a refugee camp,” which will be one of the first things to greet the deportees on their return to Turkey.

The residents’ anxiety may be premature. According to Turkish officials on Sunday, the new arrivals will be sent to camps elsewhere in the country or allowed to rejoin relatives, while non-Syrians will be sent to deportation centres.

Even before Greece became the focal point of those fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, the country’s asylum system was creaking. The flood of applications it now faces – around 3,000 in March alone, three times more than last year’s monthly average – has put it under “insufferable pressure” according to senior asylum officials in Athens.

Screening people, processing requests, and hearing appeals in time frames that might be as tight as two weeks, leaves the door wide open to error. Last week, Greece’s top asylum official admitted the bankrupt country would require a 20-fold increase in personnel to execute such a tall order.

Promised staff reinforcements in the form of some 2,300 legal experts, asylum practitioners and translators from the EU have yet to arrive, Kyritsis said.

By the weekend, when extra police from France and other countries began to fly into Lesbos, only 200 had made contact with Greek authorities.

“We have to be human and decent,” Kyritsis insisted. “If someone is ill, dying, underage or pregnant we are not going to send them back. We understand that this is a difficult process. It involves misery, it involves despair, it involves everything. We are not going to make things worse.”

Uncertainty over the deportations is fuelling tension across the Greek islands. On the adjacent island of Chios – a three hour ferry ride away, where Frontex officials were seen arriving on Sunday – hundreds of detainees broke through a razor wire fence and fled a local holding centre on Friday for fear of imminent deportation. On Lesbos, NGOs with access to Moria said they were being asked for information from “nervous” detainees.

“The entire EU Turkey deal is illogical and unethical,” Panos Navrozidis, Greece’s country director for the International Rescue Committee, said on Sunday. “It focuses on borders, not people. By and large the people who have made this journey to Europe are fleeing war. They need to be assured due process. They need to have a rigorous and thorough hearing of their claims.

“We are not confident that this is the case for those who may be deported tomorrow.”

Patrick Kingsley in Dikili contributed to this report


Helena Smith in Mytilene, Lesbos

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