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Greece is due to start sending Syrian refugees and other migrants back across the Aegean Sea to Turkey on Monday, putting into practice a controversial deal between the European Union and Turkey aimed at stemming the migration flow into Europe.
Returns are scheduled to take place from the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios and will be carried out by EU border agency Frontex. Government and police officials are bracing themselves for resistance from migrants.
About 250 people may be returned to Turkey on Monday, according to people familiar with the operation. The number could change if migrants apply for asylum at the last minute, meaning their return would be delayed until their case is considered.
The operation to return refugees and other migrants to Turkey is due to begin as the situation on Greek islands and in makeshift refugee camps on Greece’s mainland worsens. Greece’s government is scrambling to prevent unrest among frustrated migrants who fear being sent back to the Middle East. Hundreds of asylum seekers continue to take boats to Greece daily, though numbers have fallen since the deal was signed.
Under the deal signed between the EU and Turkey last month, refugees and other migrants arriving in Greece since March 20 are subject to being sent back once they have been registered and their asylum claims have been processed.
In return, the EU has pledged to take in up to 72,000 Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and to provide some ?6 billion ($6.8 billion) aimed at improving the lives of 2.7 million Syrian refugees currently living in the country. More than 5,600 migrants have landed and been registered on Greek islands since March 20.
Turkish Interior Minister Efkan Ala said Sunday his country had told Greece it was ready to accept up to 500 returnees initially, and has been given 400 names so far. “This figure may change,” he told a meeting on irregular migration in Bodrum, southwestern Turkey, according to the Anadolu agency.
According to Mr. Ala, non-Syrian migrants returned to Turkey would be sent back to their countries of origin after they are first taken to facilities mostly in southern and southeastern Turkey, away from the southwestern coast, while Syrians would be registered and taken to camps in Turkey or other “suitable places,” Mr. Ala said. Many Syrians have relatives in Turkey.
On Friday, hundreds of migrants and refugees managed to break out of the detention center on Chios in a bid to avoid deportation.
The incident took place after a brawl broke out at the detention center, leaving three migrants with stab wounds. Police used stun grenades to stop the unrest, while a help center run by nonprofit group Doctors Without Borders was destroyed, forcing the aid group to abandon its work there.
“It is not going to be an easy operation,” a senior Greek government official said. “No one is going to be happy that he is going to be returned to Turkey.”
In the Turkish coastal city of Izmir’s Basmane neighborhood, it was quieter than at any point over the past 15 months. Police had closed so-called “money-back-guarantee” offices for migrants, and smugglers had gone underground.
“I haven’t had any deals for 1� months,” said a Syrian middleman in Izmir who The Wall Street Journal first met in October, when thousands of migrants were crossing every day. “People who crossed to Lesbos are calling me now, upset, asking questions and telling they don’t want to return. I expect some trouble. People are going crazy?they have spent their life savings on the trip.”
The official added that Greece is still awaiting most of the 2,300 EU officials that were due to be deployed on the Greek islands to assist with the operation. About 200 Frontex guards arrived over the weekend, while only about a dozen judges and translators have been sent so far, according to the official.
On Friday, Greece’s parliament passed legislation beefing up the country’s asylum services and creating the conditions in Greek law for the deal to be implemented.
The bill aims to simplify and accelerate asylum procedures, so that each application and appeal takes no longer than 14 days. Asylum services will start operating under the new fast-track system on April 7, meaning that large-scale returns of Syrian refugees could take place from around April 21.
Several humanitarian groups, including Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations’ refugee agency, have suspended some work at detention centers on the islands to protest the EU-Turkey deal, which they say violates international law.
Amnesty International, which called the deal “a historic blow to human rights,” said it would send a delegation to Lesbos and Chios to monitor the situation.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry denied a report by Amnesty International that said the country was systematically deporting Syrian refugees back to Syria. According to a ministry statement, the country is still committed to its “open-door” policy of letting in refugees fleeing the war in Syria, having so far spent some $10 billion providing for the refugees in more than two dozen camps.
Greece’s government is trying to find places to accommodate some 50,000 migrants stuck in its mainland, who mostly arrived before the EU-Turkey deal took effect.
About a quarter of them are living in a makeshift camp at the town of Idomeni, near Greece’s northern border with Macedonia. Another 5,000 are sleeping in passenger terminals or outdoors at the port of Pireaus, and are refusing to move to a reception facility. Many migrants continue to hope that countries north of Greece will reopen their borders and let them travel to Germany.
Greek government officials have repeatedly urged migrants to leave the impromptu camps, but the government doesn’t have enough places ready to accommodate them.
The government said it would accelerate the creation of some 30,000 centers to house migrants. It hopes the port of Piraeus will be emptied of migrants before the Greek Easter holidays at the end of April.
Violence broke out late last week in Piraeus between rival groups of migrants staying in the area. Eight people were taken to hospital.
Another three suffered stab wounds in rioting on Samos last week. The UNHCR has also warned of growing unrest on Lesbos.
Source: Dow Jones