Migrants continue to arrive as EU-Turkey deal enters into force

Friday 18/03/2016
They chose to ignore warnings

LESBOS (Greece) - Flimsy boats packed with migrants continued to land in Greece from Turkey on Sunday despite the start of a landmark deal between the European Union and Ankara to stem the massive influx.

Under the controversial deal, which came into force at midnight, all migrants landing on the Greek islands face being sent back to Turkey.

And in a grim start to an agreement designed to stop people from making a journey fraught with danger, two little girls were found drowned and two Syrian refugees died of heart attacks on the perilous crossing.

The Greek coastguard said the bodies of the girls, aged around one and two, were recovered off the tiny island of Ro.

The Syrians suffered heart attacks on arrival at the island of Lesbos, Boris Cheshirkov, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency, said.

Greek authorities said 875 migrants landed on the islands overnight, with some 15 boats, each carrying dozens of migrants, arriving on Lesbos alone on Sunday.

While officials said it would take time to start sending people back, the SOMP agency coordinating Athens' response to the crisis said the hundreds who landed on Sunday faced certain deportation.

"They will not be able to leave the islands, and we are awaiting the arrival of international experts who will launch procedures for them to be sent back," the SOMP agency said.

SOMP spokesman Giorgos Kyritsis had said late Saturday it would take time to implement the agreement as debt-crippled Greece struggles to cope with some 47,500 migrants currently stuck on its territory.

"In practical terms, we will need the structures and personnel to be ready and this will take a little more than 24 hours," Kyritsis said.

Under the deal, for every Syrian among those sent back from Greece to Turkey, the EU will resettle one Syrian from the Turkish refugee camps where nearly three million people are living after fleeing their country's brutal civil war.

The EU will also speed up long-stalled talks on Turkey's bid to join the 28-nation bloc, double refugee aid for Turkey to six billion euros ($6.8 billion), and give visa-free travel to Turks in Europe's Schengen passport-free zone by June.

The aim of the deal, which has triggered international criticism, is to cut off the route that enabled 850,000 people to pour into Europe last year as they fled conflict and misery in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Amnesty International called the deal a "historic blow to human rights," and on Saturday thousands of people marched in London, Athens, Barcelona, Vienna, Amsterdam and several Swiss cities in opposition.

On Lesbos, Gatan, a Syrian who had just arrived with his wife and two children, said he had chosen to ignore warnings about the deal.

"In Turkey they told us not to go to Greece, that we risk arrest by the police," he said.

But he added: "We could not stay in Turkey. We want to go to Germany or France."

A French member of EU border agency Frontex said that officials expected the arrivals to drop off as word spreads about the EU-Turkey agreement.

"Information will quickly circulate that the journey has become difficult because of the deal," he said.

Realistically, migrants will likely not start being returned to Turkey until April 4, according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key backer of the scheme.

EU officials have stressed that each application for asylum will be treated individually, with full rights of appeal and proper oversight.

The deal also plans major aid for Greece, where some 12,000 people are massed on the Macedonian border alone, in dire conditions.

After a string of border closures on the Balkan migrant route that has left Athens dealing with a huge bottleneck, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has demanded reinforcements of 2,300 agents from EU border agency Frontex.

The European Commission has said the implementation of the deal will in total require the mobilisation of some 4,000 personnel, including a thousand security staff and military officers, and some 1,500 Greek and European police.

France and Germany have offered to send up to 600 police and asylum experts to help Greece implement a deal that Europe hopes will ease its worst migration crisis since World War II.