By Karolina Tagaris
Less than 24 hours before Greece is due to begin returning migrants to Turkey, little sign of preparation is evident on Lesbos, the island through which hundreds of thousands of people have poured into Europe since last year.
A few signs Turkey was getting ready for the migrants could be seen on Saturday. Two room-size tents were set up on the pier of the cramped port at Dikili, where migrants being returned from Lesbos were to be taken. Two portable toilets were installed nearby.
The return of the migrants is a key part of an agreement between the European Union and Turkey aimed at ending the uncontrollable influx into Europe of migrants and refugees fleeing poverty and war in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Under the agreement, those who cross into Greece illegally from Turkey from March 20 will be sent back to Turkey once their asylum applications have been processed.
Turkey’s interior minister, Efkan Ala, was quoted by the pro-government newspaper Aksam as saying 500 people were expected in Turkey from Greece on Monday. Afghans, Iraqis and Pakistanis would be deported to their countries, he said.
More than 6,000 migrants and refugees have been registered on Greek islands since March 20. While returns are due to begin on Monday, where they will start from and how many will be returned remains unclear.
“Planning is in progress,” said George Kyritsis, a Greek government spokesman for the migration crisis.
The Athens News Agency reported over the weekend that the returns would begin on Monday morning on two Turkish passenger ships chartered by Frontex, the EU border agency. The ships will sail from Lesbsos across to the Turkish coastal town of Dikili.
Some 250 people would be returned each day through Wednesday, the report said, without citing sources.
Greek officials would neither confirm nor deny the report. A police spokesman on Lesbos said the force was still awaiting instructions.
Arrivals to the islands remained steady on Sunday, two weeks since the cut-off date, with 514 migrants, including many Syrians and Iraqis, crossing from Turkey through Sunday morning. Of those, 364 arrived on Lesbos, authorities said.
In previous months, arrivals averaged 1,000 to 2,000 a day. Bad weather and gale-force winds have at times hit the Aegean Sea in the two weeks since the agreement. Arrivals fell, then rose again, and have held around 300 to 500 a day for the past few days. Many were unaware they would be sent back to Turkey.
“CHALLENGING AND VOLATILE”
On Friday, Greece’s parliament passed an asylum amendment bill needed to implement the agreement. The legislation does not explicitly designate Turkey as a “safe third country” – a formula to make any mass returns legally sound.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and human rights groups have denounced the agreement as lacking legal safeguards. Amnesty International has called it “a historic blow to human rights” and said it would sent a delegation to Lesbos and nearby Chios on Monday to monitor the situation.
“We feel there’s still gaps in both countries that need to be addressed,” said UNHCR’s spokesman on Lesbos, Boris Cheshirkov, referring to Greece and Turkey.
“We’re not opposed to returns as long as people are not in need of international protection, they have not applied for asylum and human rights are adhered to.”
More than 3,300 migrants and refugees are on Lesbos, Greece’s third-biggest island and home to many Greek refugees who fled Turkey in the 1920s.
About 2,800 people are held at the Moria centre, a sprawling complex of prefabricated containers, 800 more than its stated capacity. Of those, 2,000 have made asylum claims, UNHCR says.
Aid agencies have pulled out of the Lesbos camp since it became a closed facility last month, as well as in protest at conditions there. Journalists have been barred from entering the site or the holding centres on four other islands.
Condition on Lesbos were “challenging and volatile,” UNHCR said, with insufficient food and pregnant women and children among those held. Families have been separated because of the agreement, with some members inside the Lesbos holding centre and others on the mainland or elsewhere in Europe.
“Many of those who have arrived here have experienced horrendous wars,” Cheshirkov said. “To be put in a closed environment it feels like punishment whereas seeking asylum is not a crime, it’s a fundamental human right.”