Amid protests and widespread criticism, Greece on Monday is poised to begin implementing a plan that will see thousands of migrants returned to Turkey, part of a broader deal aiming to stem the massive flow of people from Turkish shores to mainland Europe.
About 750 migrants are expected to be deported to Turkey under tight security over the coming days aboard two vessels chartered by Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, the state-run Greek news agency ANA reported.
The plan, forged between the EU and Turkey after months of tense negotiations, has drawn withering criticism from rights groups and spurred unrest in refugee camps and reception centers across Greece.
“We have seen growing tension, anxiety and even bouts of violence,” said Boris Cheshirkov, a spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on Lesbos, one of the Greek islands most acutely affected by the migration increase of the last year. “Many people fear that they will be returned to Turkey.”
Since Thursday, migrants and refugees have staged protests and intermittently clashed with local Greeks and even one another. Greek news media on Sunday broadcast images of migrants streaming toward Chios Island’s main port in protest of the deal.
Riots on that island late last week “left three people with stab injuries,” said Melissa Fleming, the UNHCR’s chief spokeswoman. “We are very worried about the situation there.”
In the last year, more than a million migrants have entered Greece from Turkey, most of them from violence-wracked countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. From Greece, they have followed a well-worn migrant path through the Balkans into Northern Europe, with most hoping to settle in Germany, Sweden or other countries that have been relatively welcoming.
In recent months, that welcome has become strained, especially after major terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels and attacks on women in Germany.
Under the deal, EU member states will resettle one Syrian refugee for every Syrian returned to Turkey. Chartered buses are scheduled to shuttle the migrants targeted for return to the ancient port city of Mytilene on Lesbos.
Reception and processing centers on that island are stretched beyond capacity. In one center, the overwhelmed Moria refugee camp, observers said it is about 1,000 people beyond its official capacity.
“We have observed quite a large number of people sleeping in the open,” said Cheshirkov, reached by telephone on Lesbos. “There are additional shortages of food.”
Lesbos has been at the center of the last year’s migration increase, which has seen about a million people fleeing war, poverty and persecution in their homelands undertake risky smuggling trips from Turkish shores.
From Mytilene, European police will accompany migrants on three daily sailings to the Turkish town of Dikili in Izmir province. The first boat was expected to depart at 10 a.m. Monday. Observers, however, suspect that departures may be delayed until later in the week.
Turkish authorities will then register migrants and provide medical checkups to the returnees at a processing camp before resettling them in Turkish refugee camps.
The plan has drawn widespread criticism from human rights watchdogs.
On Friday, Amnesty International alleged that Turkey had been returning Syrian refugees to their war-wracked homeland in violation of the “non-refoulement” principle of international law.
“In their desperation to seal their borders, EU leaders have willfully ignored the simplest of facts: Turkey is not a safe country for Syrian refugees and is getting less safe by the day,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s director for Europe and Central Asia, in a news release.
Others worry that the necessary time has not been taken to ensure that the rights of migrants and refugees – mothers, unaccompanied minors, the elderly and the infirm – will be upheld.
“We are not opposed to the returns as long as human rights are upheld,” Cheshirkov said. “However, the required safeguards, which take time to implement, do not appear to be in place.”
Greek officials have defended the deportations for the coming week, saying that they are enforcing a broader EU agreement.
“These are people who have not applied for asylum or want to get asylum,” said Greece’s migration spokesman, Giorgos Kyritsis, in a statement broadcast on the Greek television station Alpha TV. “This is not a voluntary process, but a compulsory one.”
Other migrants and refugees – having previously undertaken risky smuggling trips aboard flimsy boats from Izmir in Turkey – wait anxiously on the Greek mainland, their hopes of making it to Western Europe increasingly at peril.
“We are totally against these deportations, which violate international law,” said Cem Terzi, a neurosurgeon who heads a Turkish nongovernmental organization, A Bridge Between Peoples, which has been providing free medical care to refugees and migrants in Izmir. “They have taken huge risks to start new lives. Now the EU is killing these people’s dreams.”
Implementation of the deal has proved fraught with logistical difficulties.
Thousands of interpreters and asylum experts have flown to Greece to process the new arrivals and determine whether they should be sent back to Turkey.
Frontex issued an urgent call on March 23 to European states for additional police to assist the deportation process, dubbed Poseidon Rapid Intervention. By March 18, EU member states are believed to have offered only 396 police officers of the 1,500 requested by the border agency.
Special correspondents Petrakis and Johnson reported from Athens and Istanbul, respectively.