By Tulay Karadeniz and Dasha Afanasieva
Five days before Turkey is due to start taking back illegal migrants from Greece under a landmark deal with the European Union, uncertainty remains over how many will come, how they will be processed, and where they will be housed.
Turkey agreed with the EU this month to take back all migrants and refugees who cross illegally to Greece in exchange for financial aid, faster visa-free travel for Turks and slightly accelerated EU membership talks.
The returns are supposed to begin on April 4 under the plan, which aims to close the main route by which a million migrants and refugees poured across the Aegean Sea to Greece in the last year before heading north mainly to Germany and Sweden.
Rights groups and some European politicians have challenged the legality and feasibility of the deal, questioning whether Turkey has sufficient safeguards in place to defend refugees’ rights and whether it can be considered a safe country for them.
The first returnees are expected to be taken by boat from the Greek islands to Dikili, north of the city of Izmir on Turkey’s Aegean coast, Turkish officials said. But where they will be housed in the longer term remains unclear.
“Our worries are that not just Dikili but the whole region’s infrastructure is not ready if they stay here – whether it’s health or education facilities. We have expressed these worries,” Dikili’s mayor, Mustafa Tosun, told Reuters by telephone.
“We can’t get information from the authorities … we only hear rumours,” he said, adding that the area was a tourist destination ill-suited to sheltering migrants in the long-term.
District governor Mustafa Nazmi Sezgin was quoted by the Haberturk newspaper as saying the plan was not to set up a refugee camp but just a registration centre, from where migrants would be sent on to Izmir or other areas within 24 hours.
Kerem Kinik, vice president of the Turkish Red Crescent, said his organisation was preparing a camp with 5,000 places in the province of Manisa east of Izmir after being asked for help by the government, although it would not be ready immediately.
“We will host the first returnees most probably in hotels, seaside holiday camps,” he told Reuters. Some might then be housed in refugee camps, but others were likely to return to the Turkish provinces where they had previously settled, he said.
Syrians would be free to settle outside camps if they wanted, according to an official from Turkey’s disaster management agency AFAD, which has taken a lead role in managing the 2.9 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey.
“We can’t lock them down in accommodation centres. If they want, they can go to camps, or if they have relatives they might stay with them. But if they say ‘I can take care of myself’ … we can’t pressure them,” the official said.
DEAL RUSHED THROUGH
Turkey has spent almost $10 billion since the start of the Syrian conflict, much of it on refugees camps close to the Syrian border whose standards have won international praise. A new law gives migrants permission to work in Turkey, although there are limitations on where and in which sectors.
But the camps house fewer than 300,000 of Turkey’s migrant population, who mostly fend for themselves, many through working illegally. Critics of the EU-Turkey deal fear some of the returnees from Greece will end up forced to take jobs on the black market or beg on the streets.
Under the pact, Ankara will take back all migrants and refugees who cross to Greece illegally by sea. In return, the EU will resettle thousands of legal Syrian refugees directly from Turkey – one for each Syrian returned from the Greek islands.
EU leaders hope the agreement will deter migrants from turning to people smugglers to make the dangerous crossing in small boats. However, arrivals on the Greek islands rose sharply on Wednesday after a week-long lull that was most likely due to bad weather rather than the deal.
The first European resettlement of 40 Syrians to Germany is planned for next week, a diplomatic source said, declining to be named because the plan has not yet been finalised.
Turkey intends to send non-Syrians who do not meet asylum criteria back to their countries of origin, under readmission agreements which Ankara already has with some states and is negotiating with 14 others – including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Eritrea and Somalia – according to foreign ministry officials.
That has raised concern among rights groups, who worry the deal has been rushed through by European and Turkish leaders without sufficient thought about its implementation.
“Every individual should have access to individualised procedures with the chance to explain if they don’t want to return to Turkey… Being able to achieve all this in such a short period of time seems unrealistic,” said Irem Arf, regional migration researcher for Europe for Amnesty International.
“We don’t consider Turkey a safe country for refugees and asylum seekers. We have documented cases of forced returns to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan,” she told Reuters.
Amnesty accused Turkey last week of forcibly returning about 30 Afghan asylum-seekers to Afghanistan despite their fearing Taliban attacks.
The Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management acknowledged the return of 27 Afghans, but insisted all were returned voluntarily and that none had requested asylum.