Greece on Monday shipped more than 200 migrants – a majority of them Pakistanis and Bangladeshis – back to Turkey in the first wave of deportations under a controversial deal aimed at easing Europe’s worst post-war migration crisis.
The migrants sailed on three chartered Turkish ferries from the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios back across the Aegean Sea, retracing the perilous journey they took on unseaworthy boats in their quest to reach Europe.
EU leaders hope the last-ditch deal with Ankara will discourage migrants from risking the crossing that has claimed 366 lives this year alone and break up the lucrative racket that smuggled about one million migrants into Europe last year.
The surge of migrants has sparked an existential crisis for the 28-nation EU bloc, as members flung up long-shut borders and barbed wire in a bid to push back migrants fleeing war and poverty in Syria, the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian sub-continent.
And despite the controversy surrounding the deal, it appears to be reducing the flow.
Turkey’s Interior Minister Efkan Ala said at the weekend that the numbers crossing had already fallen substantially in the last 10 days to just 300 people a day.
But some decided to chance it despite the risk of being sent back, and the Turkish coastguard on Monday blocked a boatload of about 60 mostly Afghan migrants, an AFP correspondent said.
The first wave of expulsions passed off smoothly under a visible police presence, as two boats left Lesbos carrying 136 migrants and one from the island of Chios carrying 66, said Yorgos Kyritsis, the Greek government’s migration spokesman.
In the boats the grim-faced deportees sat in rows accompanied by security guards from the EU’s Frontex border agency, according to images on Turkish state media who were allowed on board the vessels.
They arrived at the Turkish Aegean resort of Dikili to a heavy security presence on the harbourside and media kept at a distance by metal barriers, according to AFP reporters at the scene.
A police helicopter buzzed overhead as officials guided the migrants to tents pitched along the harbour for registration and health checks.
Turkish state media reported that migrants from Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan were also among the first wave.
Only two were from Syria and they had requested to return for personal reasons, Kyritsis said.
Some activists have branded the deal inhumane and a few dozen demonstrated gathered on Chios to protest against the deportations, chanting “Freedom,” according to an AFP photographer.
“Stop the dirty deal”, “stop deportations” and “wake up Europe” were among the banners brandished in Lesbos against the disputed deal.
One German protester, Henrike, said: “I feel sorry for them. I have no idea what will happen to them. It’s frustrating and it’s sad.”
Turkish EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir told HaberTurk television that the non-Syrian migrants would be sent to Kirklareli on the Bulgarian border for checks ahead of deportation to their own countries.
“People who have migrated for purely economic reasons are to be sent back according to the rules,” he said.
“We will apply to the countries of the illegal migrants. They can be our guests for a while and then bit by bit we will send them back.”
The first group of migrants was already seen boarding buses for the long drive to Kirklareli.
Under the terms of the deal, all “irregular migrants” arriving on the Greek islands since March 20 face being sent back.
For every Syrian refugee returned, another will be resettled from Turkey to the EU, with numbers capped at 72,000.
There are over 2.7 million Syrian refugees living in camps in Turkey.
For its part, Turkey has been promised visa-free travel for its citizens to the EU by this summer and an acceleration of its long-stalled bid to join the bloc.
Authorities hope that the deal will wreck the business of people smugglers by removing any incentive for migrants to make the journey.
The EU kept its side of the pact, with a group of 16 asylum seekers from Syria flying into the German city of Hanover and a second group was expected later Monday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a particular interest in the deal, as her country accepted a record 1.1 million migrants last year after she refused to cap refugee numbers, earning her criticism at home and within the EU.
Rights groups have criticised the agreement though, with Amnesty International accusing Turkey of not being a safe country for refugees by forcibly returning Syrians back home to their war-torn countries — a charge Ankara rejects.
“The returns today are in many ways symbolic,” said Gauri Vangulik, Deputy Europe director for Amnesty International.
“They are the first starting point of what is to become really one of the most disastrous episodes in European asylum policy.”