By Lefteris Papadimas and Mehmet Emin Caliskan
Turkey and Germany said on Wednesday an agreement between Ankara and the EU meant to stem the flow of migrants to the Greek islands was showing signs of success, but many were still trying to cross the sea and the route remained far from sealed off.
The accord, which came into force on Monday, aims to help end the chaotic arrival of migrants and refugees, most fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, after more than a million reached Europe last year.
The influx has threatened the EU’s system of passport-free travel and prompted its executive on Wednesday to propose strengthening common asylum rules.
New arrivals on the Greek islands from Turkey dropped to 68 in the 24 hours to Wednesday morning from 225 the previous day, data from the Greek migration ministry showed. That compared to a single day last October, during the peak of the crisis, when arrivals approached 9,200 people.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the fall was a direct result of the EU-Turkey deal. A spokesman for the German government, which lobbied sceptical European partners to back the accord and is under political pressure at home to show progress, also said things were moving in the right direction.
“It is functioning, and the (number of) illegal migrants is in decline,” Davutoglu said during a visit to Helsinki.
Under the accord, migrants and refugees who cross the Aegean Sea illegally are sent back to Turkey. Since Monday, 202 people, mostly from Pakistan, have been returned. Greek and Turkish officials say more may be sent back this week.
But the number of illegal migrants arriving on the Greek islands fluctuates daily, and the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR was more cautious about whether the deal was deterring them.
“The conditions forcing these people to move, including onwards to Europe, are still present and many people are falling through the cracks,” said Boris Cheshirkov, a UNHCR spokesman on the Greek island of Lesbos.
Turkish authorities detained several groups at sea shortly after dawn on Wednesday, including about 40 Iraqis, some of whom set sail in a small dinghy from a cove 20 km (12 miles) south of the town of Dikili. Others, left on the beach as the dinghy was too small, watched as the Turkish coastguard intercepted them.
“Greece does not want to host us. Turkey is not allowing us. Where should we go? We drown in the sea with our children, that’s it,” said one Iraqi, declining to give his name.
Around 15 Pakistani migrants were also intercepted and taken to Dikili, where a reception centre has been set up.
On a nearby road, nine Syrian Palestinians who had fled the Yarmouk refugee camp on the edge of Damascus, their belongings in rubbish bags over their backs, were trying to find transport after abandoning efforts to cross the sea, deciding the groups they planned to join were too big and the boats too small.
“This agreement is not about Syrians or Palestinians. Where can we go if we go back to our land?” one said of the EU-Turkey deal, declining to give her name.
Under the accord, the EU will take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and reward it with financial aid, visa-free travel and progress in its EU membership negotiations.
Critics say the EU was in such a rush to start the returns to Turkey that it skirted legal concerns, something that will come back to haunt it once it moves on to the deportation of asylum-seekers and refugees rather than the illegal migrants sent back so far.
Human rights campaigners have questioned whether Turkey has sufficient safeguards to qualify as a safe country for refugees.
European officials say it is essential for Turkey to adopt tighter regulation on protection for Syrians. A Turkish official said such regulation had been agreed and was awaiting the approval of President Tayyip Erdogan.
Non-Syrians returned from Greece are being taken to a centre in the Turkish town of Kirklareli near the Bulgarian border, from where they are expected to be deported.
Returned Syrians are expected to be taken to a camp in the southern town of Osmaniye. Those with the means will be allowed to settle elsewhere in Turkey among an existing Syrian migrant population of 2.8 million, officials say.
Greece has reported a spike in the number of asylum applications of individuals who have arrived since March 20, the date the first phase of the EU accord took effect and new arrivals were detained in holding centres.
There have been protests in the Moria camp on Lesbos. A Pakistani migrant threatened to hang himself during a demonstration there on Wednesday.
According to official data, about 50,000 refugees and migrants are stranded on the Greek mainland after border closures in February sealed off a Balkan route used by thousands to reach western Europe in the past year.
At Piraeus, close to Athens, tensions boiled over after government officials urged hundreds camped in tents to leave. Migrants sat on the quayside refusing to move, while one man charged at police holding an infant, a Reuters witness said.