By Orhan Coskun and Karolina Tagaris
ANKARA/LESBOS, Turkey, April 5 – Turkey is ready to take another 200 migrants deported from the Greek islands on Wednesday, a senior government official said, as it presses ahead with a disputed EU deal aimed at shutting down the main route for illegal migration into Europe.
A first group of 202 migrants, mostly Pakistani and Afghan, were shipped back to Turkey on Monday under an agreement which will see Ankara take back all migrants and refugees who cross the Aegean to enter Greece illegally.
In return, the European Union will take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and reward it with money, visa-free travel and progress in its EU membership negotiations.
“This arrangement will prevent the Aegean Sea being turned into a cemetery for migrants,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in parliament of a deal meant to dissuade migrants from attempting perilous illegal sea crossings.
The pact has been criticised by refugee agencies and human rights campaigners, who have cast it as inhumane, questioned its legality, and argued Turkey is not a safe country for refugees.
Several dozen migrants being detained at a holding camp on the Greek island of Lesbos protested behind the barbed wire fence of the compound on Tuesday, shouting “We want freedom!”
They were among thousands of refugees and migrants who have arrived on Lesbos on or since March 20 from Turkey and who are being held until their asylum requests are processed and they are accepted or sent back under the deal.
The first group of returnees from Greece were brought from Lesbos and Chios to the Turkey’s Aegean coastal town of Dikili on Monday. They were then taken in buses escorted by gendarmes to a “reception and removal” centre in a fenced compound in the town of Kirklareli near the Bulgarian border, from where most are expected to be sent back to their home countries.
“We will take in people through Dikili again tomorrow. We will take in around 200 irregular migrants,” the Turkish government official said, declining to be identified because the plans have not yet been made public.
MIGRANTS DEMAND FREEDOM
Monday’s group included 130 Pakistanis, 42 Afghans, as well as nationals of Iran, Congo, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Iraq, Ivory Coast and Somalia, people familiar with an internal European Commission report said. There were also two Syrians who had requested a return to Turkey, Turkish officials said.
Davutoglu said a first group of 78 Syrians had been sent to Europe in return as part of the deal. Thirty-two went to Germany, 11 to Finland and another 34 were expected to go on Tuesday to the Netherlands, the European Commission report said.
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.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has stopped transporting arrivals to and from the Moria camp on Lesbos, initially set up to register arrivals but which has since become what it calls a “detention centre”.
Through barbed wire at the camp, one man held up a piece of cardboard, which read: “Kill us if you want.”
On the wall of the sprawling gated complex, which was once an army camp, graffiti read: ‘No one is illegal’.
UNHCR says there are some 600 people above capacity at Moria, including pregnant women, lactating mothers and children, with insufficient food. Other aid groups have also pulled out from the site in protest at conditions there.