A first group of migrants under heavy escort was deported from the Greek island of Lesbos in the early hours of Monday morning as implementation of a controversial deal between the EU and Turkey got off to a chaotic start.
Twenty-four hours before busloads of migrants left the Moria detention centre heading for the main port of Lesbos on Monday, marking the start of controversial expulsions to Turkey, Sham and his brother slipped out of the facility to go into hiding. The young Pakistani siblings planned to spend the night outside Moria. They knew their nationality meant they were at greater risk than others of being deported. “They will start with the Pakistanis,” Sham said. “They are keeping 200 Pakistanis in a prison place within the camp. They will be deported first.”
The expulsions duly began on Monday morning, a full three hours ahead of schedule in a bid to pre-empt media coverage and protests in the port of Mytilene, the main city on this remote Greek island located just 10 kilometres off the coast of Turkey. A total of 131 migrants were deported on two Turkish boats chartered by Frontex, the EU’s border agency, and bound for Turkey, a Frontex spokesperson told reporters at the port. Each migrant was accompanied by a Frontex security agent. Greek officials put the number of deportees at 136. A further 66 were expelled from the nearby island of Chios.
Their departure signals the start of a new phase of Europe’s refugee crisis, one that Amnesty International has described as a “historic blow to human rights”. It follows a frantic weekend of preparations marked by conflicting reports from Greek, Turkish and EU officials over how many people would be deported, by whom and from where. Just hours ahead of the deportation, George Kyritsis, the Greek government spokesman for the migration crisis, said numbers floated “had been taken from thin air”.
The confusion continued on Monday. Eva Moncore, the Frontex spokesperson, said she believed the deportees were “mostly Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who have not applied for asylum”. She said she saw only men and was “not aware” of any Syrians boarding the boats. But Turkish officials later said 138 people had made the narrow crossing, including two Syrians. Athens News Agency confirmed their presence. It said four Sri Lankans, two Indians and one Iraqi had also been sent back.
Outside the coast guard docks in Mytilene, from where the ferries left heading for Turkey’s Dikili, dozens of protesters had gathered to vent their anger at the expulsions. They shouted slogans and held banners reading “EU shame on you”. “This is the darkest page of the [refugee] crisis, it’s the worst day we have experienced,” said Efi Latsoudi, a native of Lesbos who has been assisting migrants for months on the remote Greek island which has borne the brunt of the crisis. “All this time we have been fighting for their rights. Now they are being sent back to a country that is not safe. We don’t want this Europe of deportations.”
The returns are a key part of an agreement between the European Union and Turkey aimed at ending the uncontrollable influx into Europe of refugees and migrants fleeing war and misery in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Under the widely decried deal, those who cross into Greece illegally will be held and sent back once their asylum applications are processed. For every Syrian sent back to Turkey, one Syrian already in Turkey will be resettled in the EU – though Europe has made it clear it will take no more than 72,000.
As part of the same deal, Turkey — which is hosting some 2.7 million refugees from neighbouring Syria — was due to send a first group of refugees directly to Germany and the Netherlands on Monday. Germany’s interior ministry said most of the arrivals would be families with children, putting the number in the “double-digit range”. The first group of 16 migrants arrived in the German city of Hanover on Monday morning. A second group was expected to arrive later in the day.
Meanwhile, boats laden with migrants continue to cross the narrow stretch of sea separating Turkey and the Greek islands. There was a surreal scene early on Monday when a raft with around 60 new migrants on board crossed paths with the two boats carrying the first deportees. So far, more than 6,000 new arrivals have been registered on Lesbos and other islands since March 20, the day the EU-Turkey agreement came into force. Many newcomers are unaware they are likely to be sent back.
Across Greece, more than 51,000 migrants have been stuck in limbo since countries to the north closed their borders earlier this month. They are now trapped in Greece, a cash-strapped country they never envisaged as their final destination when they set off from home fleeing poverty, war and persecution.
‘One big fiasco’
Aid agencies have blasted the EU for signing up to collective expulsions and hurriedly designating Turkey as a “safe country” for refugees, despite reports of Turkish authorities forcibly returning Syrians and other nationals to their home countries, where they face persecution.
Most organisations have pulled out of the Moria centre since it became a closed facility last month. Under international law, it is illegal to detain children. It is also illegal to detain asylum seekers until their application has been processed. The UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, has said all legal safeguards – including due process of applications and the right to appeal rejections – are not yet in place. On Sunday evening, Greek officials also acknowledged that some 2,300 legal experts and translators promised by the EU had yet to arrive in Lesbos.
Journalists have been barred from entering Moria. Three reporters – two French and one Greek – were briefly detained by police inside the facility on Sunday after they were spotted filming from outside the camp. The UNHCR’s spokesperson in Lesbos said there was a shortage of food and beds. He said the centre was holding 2,800 people, 800 more than its stated capacity, describing conditions as “challenging and volatile”. He also confirmed reports that scores of Pakistanis were being held in a separate part of the camp.
At the port on Monday, Ayesha Keller, spokesperson for the NGO “Better Days for Moria”, claimed many of the Pakistanis had been misinformed about the asylum process. She said her group spoke to them by phone on Sunday evening and urged them to apply. “They were told it was too late,” she said. “They didn’t apply earlier because they feared it was a trick. They have been tricked so many times. They don’t trust the UNHCR translator. He was sent by the Pakistani government, and they are escaping from their government. There’s no way the people on the bus didn’t want to apply for asylum.”
Keller said police rounded up four Pakistanis who were hiding in tents outside Moria in the early hours of Monday, before six buses headed for the port carrying the first deportees. Sham, the young Pakistani, was not among those rounded up. He has made his asylum request and is now awaiting a decision.
Just hours after Monday’s expulsions, Greek media were reporting that all the people inside Moria had expressed their wish to apply for asylum. According to Athens News Agency, the deportation process has been put on hold until their applications are processed. It said planned expulsions over the coming days had been cancelled “for lack of people who can legally be deported”. As a local reporter told us in the port of Mytilene, “this is all one big fiasco”.