By Karolina Tagaris and Renee Maltezou
ATHENS/LESBOS, Greece, April 6 – A day after Greece deported hundreds of migrants to Turkey under an EU deal meant to discourage others from making the same perilous journey to Europe, anger was simmering on Greek islands and asylum applications were piling up.
Under the pact, Ankara will take back migrants and refugees who cross the Aegean to enter Greece illegally, including Syrians. In return, the EU will take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey.
Greece, struggling with a huge debt crisis, plays a key role in the implementation of the deal which reflects the bloc’s handling of its worst refugee crisis in decades.
Some 202 migrants, mostly from Pakistan, were returned to Turkey on Monday from the Aegean islands of Lesbos and Chios. Government officials and the International Office for Migration said the figure included two Syrians, who returned voluntarily.
The IOM said on Tuesday that the flow to Greece had slowed since the deal came into force. But human rights groups on the ground said facilities were still ill-equipped and many migrants were kept waiting.
Behind the barbed wire fence of a holding centre on Lesbos detained migrants chanted: “We want freedom!”. They were among thousands of people who have arrived since March 20 and who are being held until their asylum requests are processed.
Over 2,800 of those held at the Moria holding centre on Lesbos say they intend to make claims for asylum, according to Boris Cheshirkov, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the island.
While UNHCR is not taking part in the assessment, it is monitoring conditions at the site and the integrity of the asylum process.
Cheshirkov said the UNHCR had been assured by the authorities that those returned to Turkey on Monday had not expressed a will to seek asylum and that they had been informed of their options.
But a senior UNHCR official said there was reason to believe as many as 13 people out of 66 on the boat to Turkey from the island of Chios may have intended to apply for asylum.
“There is serious dysfunction in Chios,” Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s Europe director, told Reuters.
Four days after March 20 – when enforcement of the deal began – Greek police had not registered anyone’s intention of seeking asylum because they were ill-equipped, Cochetel said.
UNHCR began providing forms to people who had declared their intention of seeking asylum and though the police received most of the people with these forms, it “forgot some, apparently,” Cochetel said.
“It is more a mistake than anything else, we hope,” he said. UNHCR was now seeking access to these people at the Kirikali removal centre in Turkey.
So far, the European Asylum Office (EASO), a partner in implementing the deal, has issued a call for 400 experts and 400 interpreters to help in processing. It expects its presence in Greece to grow quickly in the coming weeks, spokesman Jean-Pierre Schembri said.
Refugees and migrants who arrive on the Greek islands will be screened, registered and identified. Those who apply for asylum will undergo “admissibility assessments” – interviews conducted by the Greek authorities and supported by the EASO.
Amnesty International called the situation in Greece “very chaotic,” without enough attention for individual processing. An Amnesty International official visiting Lesbos to monitor the returns procedure said it was “quite symbolic.”
“What really worries us most is what happens next,” Amnesty’s deputy director for Europe, Gauri van Gulik, told Reuters. “Will they be safe once returned to Turkey?”
A Greek government official acknowledged that facilities were ill-equipped and added that “things will speed up from Thursday” when seventy staff from EASO were due to begin work on Lesbos after being trained in Athens.
“Of course there will be more returns, but that hinges on a legal process which we follow to the letter,” the official told Reuters.
“We won’t be violating human rights in the name of meeting a deadline, this is not our rationale. If we did it would have a boomerang effect.”
But while pressure on Greece is increasing, others suggest the European Union should take control of the issue.
Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank, said the EU should establish an EU mission of asylum support and defend it in public.
“The European Commission has a vital interest in making this work but the way they’re doing it cannot work,” said Knaus. “At the moment, we have a deal that is an orphan, in the eyes of many it’s a bastard, born illegitimately.”