Migrants sent back from the Greek island of Lesbos began arriving in Turkey on Monday under a disputed European Union scheme aimed at closing the main route by which a million people poured across the Aegean Sea to Greece in the last year.
Under a deal denounced by refugee agencies and human rights campaigners, Ankara will take back all migrants and refugees who enter Greece illegally, including Syrians, in return for the EU taking in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and rewarding it with more money, early visa-free travel and progress in its EU membership negotiations.
Two Turkish-flagged passenger boats carrying 131 migrants arrived in the Turkish town of Dikili early on Monday, accompanied by two Turkish coast guard vessels with a police helicopter buzzing overhead, a Reuters witness said.
A coastguard official on the Greek island of Chios told Reuters that 66 people, most of them Afghans, were also sent to Turkey on a third boat early on Monday.
The aim of the EU-Turkey deal is to discourage migrants from perilous crossings, often in small boats and dinghies, and to break the business model of human smugglers who have fueled Europe’s biggest migration wave since World War Two.
A few hours after the first boat of returnees set sail from Lesbos, Greek coast guard patrol vessels rescued at least two dinghies carrying more than 50 migrants and refugees, including children and a woman in a wheelchair, trying to reach the island.
“We are just going to try our chance. It is for our destiny. We are dead anyway,” said Firaz, 31, a Syrian Kurd from the province of Hasakah who was traveling with his cousin.
Asked if he was aware that the Greeks were sending people back, he said: “I heard maybe Iranians, Afghans. I didn’t hear they were sending back Syrians to Turkey… At least I did what I could. I’m alive. That’s it.”
A group of 47 mainly Pakistani men were also intercepted by the Turkish coast guard on Monday and taken to a holding center next to Dikili’s port, a Reuters witness said.
Under the pact, the EU will resettle thousands of legal Syrian refugees directly from Turkey – one for each Syrian returned from the Greek islands. German police said the first Syrian refugees arrived by plane on Monday under the deal.
A few dozen police and immigration officials waited outside a small white tent on the quayside at Dikili as the returned migrants disembarked one by one, before being photographed and having their fingerprints taken behind security screening.
The returnees from Lesbos were mostly from Pakistan and some from Bangladesh and they had not applied for asylum, said Ewa Moncure, a spokeswoman for EU border agency Frontex.
Asked if Syrians would be returned, she said: “At some point, but I don’t know when.”
Turkish EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir said there were no Syrians in the first group coming from Greece, but that when they did begin to arrive they would be sent to the southern city of Osmaniye, around 25 miles from the Syrian border.
For non-Syrians, Turkey would apply to their home countries and send them back systematically, Bozkir said in an interview with Turkish broadcaster Haberturk.
Rights groups and some European politicians have challenged the legality of the deal, questioning whether Turkey has sufficient safeguards in place to defend refugees’ rights and whether it can be considered safe for them.
Turkey insists it is meeting its international obligations. The EU was determined to get the program under way on schedule despite such doubts because of strong political pressure in northern Europe to deter migrants from attempting the journey,
There were small protests as the returns got underway.
On Lesbos, a small group of protesters chanted “Shame on you!” when the migrant boats set sail as the sun rose over the Aegean. Volunteer rescuers aboard a nearby boat hoisted a banner that read: “Ferries for safe passage, not for deportation.”
Each migrant was accompanied on Lesbos by a plainclothes Frontex officer. They had been transported in a nighttime operation from the island’s holding center to the port. Greek riot police squads also boarded the boats.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and rights groups have said the deal between the European Union and Turkey lacks legal safeguards. Amnesty International has called it “a historic blow to human rights,” and was sending monitors to Lesbos and Chios on Monday.
More than 3,300 migrants and refugees are on Lesbos. About 2,600 people are held at the Moria center, a sprawling complex of prefabricated containers, 600 more than its stated capacity. Of those, 2,000 have made asylum claims, UNHCR said.