By Karolina Tagaris
ATHENS, April 26 – Two ferries left Greece for Turkey on Tuesday with 18 migrants on board, as a government spokesman said Athens was doing all it could to process returnees under a deal with Turkey intended to stem a huge refugee influx into Europe.
Just over 340 people have so far been returned to Turkey under the accord, agreed with the European Union in March after more than 1 million people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond reached the continent last year.
On Tuesday, 13 people were deported from the island of Lesvos to the Turkish town of Dikili and five were ferried back from Chios to Cesme, police said. Most were Afghans.
None had requested asylum in Greece, a government official said.
Greece has said authorities would start ruling on asylum applications in late April, but requests have been piling up and it has been criticised for being too slow to process them.
Giorgos Kyritsis, government spokesman for the migration crisis, said Athens was “not cutting corners (and)… not delaying.”
“We’re sticking to the legal procedure so that the asylum process is completed in the best possible way,” he said.
Under deal, arrivals in Greece from Turkey after March 20 face being sent back if they do not apply for asylum in Greece or if their application is rejected.
In return, the EU will take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and reward Ankara with more money, early visa-free travel for its citizens and progress in negotiations to join the bloc.
About 8,000 refugees and migrants are currently on Greek islands, having arrived after the deal was implemented.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and human rights groups have questioned whether the deal is legal or moral. They are also concerned about whether Turkey is a “safe” country for returnees.
In Geneva, the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) said it was concerned about the plight of Syrian refugees in Turkey, with around 90 percent of them outside official camps, often without work and in makeshift accommodation.
WFP Spokeswoman Bettina Luescher told journalists that it aimed to expand its electronic food card system, which enables refugees to shop in local stores, to reach more than half a million people living in cities across Turkey.