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EU ships migrants from Greek islands back to Turkey

Published 04/04/2016

Refugees at Moria camp in the Greek island of Lesbos (AP)
Refugees at Moria camp in the Greek island of Lesbos (AP)

A controversial European Union plan to curb migration and smash smuggling rings in Turkey began as 202 migrants from two Greek islands were piled onto boats heading back to Turkey.

Under heavy security, authorities on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios began the deportations - the first in a plan that has drawn strong criticism from human rights advocates but is seen by some European nations as the only way to resolve the continent's migration crisis.

The first vessel from Lesbos was escorted into the Turkish port of Dikili by the Turkish coast guard as a Turkish helicopter hovered overhead. The migrants were taken to red-and-white tents for registration and health checks.

About a dozen people stood at the port holding a banner that read "Welcome refugees. Turkey is your home". That came in sharp contrast to protests by locals over the weekend who feared that Dikili would turn into a warehouse for refugees.

A second vessel motored in from Lesbos and a third from Chios. Authorities said most of the people in the first batch were Pakistanis. They were loaded onto buses.

Those who arrived from Lesbos were sent to "reception and removal centre" in the north-western Kirklareli province on the Black Sea, according to Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency. It said Syrians would be placed in refugee camps and other migrants would be deported.

In an address to police officers in Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged them to show "compassion'" to the returning migrants and said Syrian refugees from camps in Turkey would be sent to Europe now as part of the plan.

Defying the new plan, more than 330 people still crossed over to Greece from Turkey in smuggling boats on Monday morning, according to Greek authorities.

Turkey and the European Union reached a deal last month that says migrants who reach Greece illegally from Turkey after March 20 will be returned to Turkey unless they qualify for asylum. For every Syrian turned back, a Syrian refugee is to be resettled from Turkey to the EU.

In Germany, 16 Syrian refugees from Turkey landed in the central city of Hannover on Monday to be resettled and 16 more were expected on a flight later in the day.

Monday was the designated start date for transfers, a symbolic benchmark in the agreement that has been plagued by concerns over human rights and the adequacy of preparations made in Greece and Turkey. The numbers transferred, however, were smaller than initially forecast.

A total of 50,000 migrants and refugees are stranded in Greece following the border closures of European nations further north, but only those who arrived after March 20 - about 4,000 of them - are being detained for deportation.

Giorgos Kyritsis, a spokesman for a Greek government refugee committee, said 136 migrants were deported from Lesbos and 66 from the nearby island of Chios, where riot police clashed with residents hours earlier during a protest against the expulsions.

Greek officials say those returned came from 11 nations, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Congo.

"This is the first day of a very difficult time for refugee rights. Despite the serious legal gaps and lack of adequate protection in Turkey, the EU is forging ahead with a dangerous deal," Giorgos Kosmopoulos, head of Amnesty International in Greece, said.

"Turkey is not a safe third country for refugees. The EU and Greek authorities know this and have no excuse," he said.

The operation was supervised by a lieutenant general of the Greek police and occurred peacefully. The deportations started with migrants who did not apply for asylum or had their applications declared inadmissible.

"Even if this first group is not refugees, what we are seeing here is symbolic kick-off of what might be a very dangerous practice of returns to Turkey," Mr Kosmopoulos said.

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