First wave of migrants returned to Turkey under EU deal

At first light, a small Turkish ferry, the Lesvos, and a larger catamaran, the Nezli Jale, steamed out of the island of Lesbos carrying 131 migrants, mainly from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Migrants arrive on a bus at the port of Mytilini on the Greek island of Lesbos on Monday during the first day of the implementation of the deal between EU and Turkey. Petros Giannakouris / AP
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Lesbos, Greece // Greece shipped more than 200 migrants back to Turkey on Monday in the first wave of deportations under a hugely controversial deal aimed at easing Europe’s worst postwar migration crisis.

The orderly return of the 202 migrants aboard three chartered Turkish ferries stood in stark contrast to the journey many have taken over perilous seas in flimsy life jackets aboard crowded and leaky rubber dinghies.

Two boats left the Greek island of Lesbos at dawn, and another from the island of Chios, carrying mostly economic migrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan who Turkey will eventually deport to their home countries.

The grim-faced deportees were boarded onto the boats by security guards from the EU’s Frontex border agency wearing sanitary face masks.

Facing an unprecedented influx that has threatened to tear the bloc apart, the EU clinched a last-ditch deal with Turkey to take back all migrants landing in Greece after March 20.

In a heavily criticised swap deal, the EU has pledged to rehouse one Syrian in the bloc for every one deported from Greece, with numbers capped at 72,000.

And the EU kept its side of the pact with 32 asylum seekers from Syria flying into the German city of Hanover.

European leaders hope this 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.

However rights groups have slammed the pact as inhumane and a blow to the right to request asylum, and protesters on Lesbos brandished banners reading: “Stop the dirty deal”, “stop deportations” and “wake up Europe”.

The first to be deported under the deal arrived at the Turkish Aegean resort of Dikili to a heavy security presence on the harbourside.

“The taking of fingerprints, the landing at the port, medical checks ... the transport of the 202 people in buses to reception centres in Kirklareli [on the Bulgarian border], is all taking place successfully,” said Mustafa Toprak, governor of Turkey’s Izmir region.

Yorgos Kyritsis, Greece’s migration spokesman, said the first wave contained citizens from Iran, Congo, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Ivory Coast and Somalia.

Only two were from Syria and they had requested to return for personal reasons, Mr Kyritsis said.

Turkish EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir said the non-Syrian migrants would be sent to Kirklareli 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.

Despite the controversy surrounding the deal, it appeared 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.

Those in Greece are now rushing to speed up their asylum requests to avoid deportation.

“Lawyers came to talk to us through the fence and explain that it was best to do that,” said Toufik, an Afghan in the Moria migrant camp on Lesbos.

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.

In return for its assistance in implementing the deal, Turkey will receive billions in EU aid, accelerated visa-free travel for its citizens and progress in its bid for membership of the bloc.

*Agence France-Presse