A controversial European Union plan to stem the flow of refugees began Monday with the deportation of more than 200 people from Greek islands to Turkey, despite concerns over human rights and criticism that Europe was turning its back on refugees.
As dawn broke, buses filled with migrants left under heavy security from a detention center on the island of Lesbos headed to the port for the short boat ride to the Turkish port of Dikili. More were ferried across from the island of Chios, where riot police clashed hours earlier with demonstrators protesting the expulsions.
In all, 202 people from 11 nations - 191 men and 11 women - were sent back. They included 130 Pakistanis, 42 Afghans, 10 Iranians, five Congolese, four Sri Lankans, three Bangladeshis, three from India, and one each from Iraq, Somalia and Ivory Coast, as well as two Syrians who Greek authorities said had asked to be sent back.
Human rights groups expressed deep concern over the operation.
"The returns underway this morning in the Aegean are the symbolic start of the potential disastrous undoing of Europe's commitment to protecting refugees," said Amnesty International's deputy director for Europe, Gauri van Gulik. "Urgent key questions are: What process is everyone going through and what will become of them after their return?"
Judith Sunderland, acting deputy Europe director at Human Rights Watch, said trying to close the Aegean migration route by shipping people "back to uncertain fates in Turkey" will only make them seek potentially more dangerous and expensive ways to reach the EU.
"This whole deal involves throwing human beings down legal loopholes," she said. "Turkey is not a safe country, and rights on paper are not the same as rights in practice."
"It is completely disingenuous to say that the EU-Turkey deal is about saving lives," Sunderland added. "Conducting serious search-and-rescue operations at sea, doing large-scale, unconditional resettlement, creating legal migration pathways - these policies would save lives."
European officials insist the EU-Turkey agreement is the only way to deter people from heading to Greece from the nearby Turkish coast - a brief but perilous trip that has cost many lives - and to stop what was an almost uncontrolled flow of hundreds of thousands of people heading into Europe's prosperous heartland.
Under the deal, those who arrived on or after March 20 will be sent back to Turkey unless they qualify for asylum. For every Syrian returned, Europe will take a Syrian to be resettled in an EU country.
Despite the deal, hundreds have persisted in making the Aegean crossing, although the numbers are far lower than the thousands who had earlier arrived daily. On Monday, Greek authorities said they had registered 339 new arrivals over the past 24 hours.
Even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country signed up to the deal in return for an EU pledge of 3 billion euros to handle the refugee crisis, lashed out at Europe for turning its back refugees and restricting the numbers they will accept.
"Did we turn Syrians back? No, we didn't, but they did," he said of EU countries. "By way of placing razor wire, they didn't let these people into their countries. We see who's dying on the Aegean Sea. But the number of those rescued by us on the Aegean Sea is 100,000."
Turkey is home to 2.7 million Syrian refugees, but has come under criticism for not cracking down on the smugglers who have ferried hundreds of thousands across to Greek islands, often with deadly results. Under the deal, Turkey will also see visa liberalization talks and EU membership negotiations speeded up.
The first vessel from Lesbos was escorted into the Turkish port of Dikili by the Turkish coast guard as a helicopter hovered overhead. The migrants were taken to red-and-white tents for registration and health checks.
About a dozen people stood at the port holding a banner that read "Welcome refugees. Turkey is your home." That sentiment was in sharp contrast to protests over the weekend by residents who feared that Dikili would turn into a warehouse for refugees.
Those who arrived from Lesbos were sent to a "reception and removal center" in the northwestern Kirklareli province on the Black Sea, according to Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency. It said the Syrians would be placed in refugee camps and other migrants would be deported.
As part of the other half of the plan, 32 Syrian refugees from Turkey were flying into Germany to be resettled, while another 11 arrived in Finland.
Balkan and European countries began restricting the flows of refugees and migrants through their borders earlier this year, and shut them completely in early March. More than 52,000 are now stranded in Greece.
Source: National News Agency