Europe begins sending people back across the sea, defying human rights outcry – Washington Post

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The European Union began offloading its refugee crisis onto its Turkish neighbors Monday, sending back more than 200 migrants in the first stage of a plan to deport thousands that has drawn condemnation from human rights groups.

The returns — carried out at dawn and under heavy security — were intended to send a powerful message to others considering the journey from Turkey to Greece via a smuggler’s rubber raft: Don’t even bother.

Authorities braced for demonstrations or other forms of resistance from those being turned away only days after crossing the Aegean Sea and arriving on European soil in search of a new life — part of a massive migrant wave that has tested Europe’s resources and highlighted the desperation to the east in war zones such as Syria.

But the expulsions were carried out quietly; two ferries packed with migrants and E.U. escorts slipped away from the island of Lesbos and charted an eastbound course toward the rising sun along the blue mountains of the Turkish coast.

A third ferry left the island of Chios, another popular landing spot, bringing the total sent back to 202 by late Monday — nearly all from Pakistan or Afghanistan.

The ferries later arrived in the Turkish town of Dikili, where the migrants were expected to be taken to temporary shelters before being transferred to other facilities elsewhere in the country. Turkish authorities said that Syrians would be given the right to register for asylum but that those from other nations would be sent home.

Under a deal struck with Turkey last month, all refugees and migrants who arrive on Greek shores aboard smugglers’ rafts from March 20 onward will be sent back.

In return, the E.U. has said it will accept one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every Syrian who is returned. Germany said Monday that it had accepted its first several dozen Syrians flown from Turkey under the new program.

And in a further attempt to discourage people from crossing on their own, those who are ­returned will be sent to the end of the line for possible European resettlement in the future.

Europe still faces a mammoth challenge, however, in deporting the thousands of people who ­remain on the Greek islands. And unlike those sent back to Turkey on Monday — all of whom ­declined to apply for asylum, ­according to authorities — the vast majority of those still being held have sought legal protection in Europe.

Human rights advocates said Monday that they are deeply concerned that people will be deported without a full and fair asylum review and that Turkey will simply return them to their homelands — countries that, in many cases, are riven by war or unrest, such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This is an easy way for Europe to push the problem into its back yard and let others deal with it,” said Panos Navrozidis, country director in Greece for the International Rescue Committee. “It’s clearly a political decision. The agreement is illegal, and it’s illogical.”

The deal is laden with incentives for Turkey.

The European Union has promised billions of dollars of financial assistance and has pledged to ease visa rules for Turks seeking to travel in the 28-member bloc. The E.U. has also said it will revive Turkey’s long-stalled membership application.

The agreement reflects European desperation to halt the migrant flow that brought more than 1 million asylum seekers and others to the continent’s shores in 2015. The number was on pace to be even higher this year until countries up and down the migrant trail sealed their borders, effectively trapping people in Greece.

Around 51,000 migrants remained scattered in shelters and other accommodations across the country Monday. The vast majority arrived before March 20, meaning they can stay in Greece for now. But they have been barred from going any farther.

The Greek police said that of the 202 people sent back to Turkey on Monday, 130 were Pakistanis, 42 were Afghans and 10 were Iranians. Among other nationalities were a handful of Indians, Iraqis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, reflecting the wide array of people who have made the sea voyage to Europe.

The deportees, however, were not representative of the overall flows to the islands. About half the people arriving in Greece are Syrian, and Europe still faces the prospect of deporting Syrian families despite asylum acceptance rates that reach nearly 100 percent.

The pace of arrivals in Greece has fallen markedly since Europe announced its deportation policy. But even as Europe was sending people back to Turkey aboard ferries, migrants on rafts continued to arrive in Greece.

About 100 people made landfall on Lesbos on Monday morning.

At dawn, a group of them stood shivering under gray woolen blankets in the port, some clutching babies.

“We were on the sea for six hours. We had so many problems,” said Shahid Kamran, a 24-year-old Pakistani who said he was fleeing the Taliban.

Kamran said he had heard that Europe was sending people back but still hoped that authorities would reconsider.

“If we can stay here, then we are totally safe,” he said. “But we don’t know if they’ll let us stay or tell us, ‘Go.’ ”

As he spoke, buses pulled up elsewhere in the harbor, having picked up dozens of detainees from the island’s main detention facility.

Each migrant was escorted to a waiting ferry by a plainclothes officer from the European border control agency, Frontex. Armed Greek police were also on board as the boats set sail.

A smattering of protesters held aloft hand-lettered signs reading “Turkey is not a safe country for refugees” and “Respect our rights.”

The migrants themselves did not appear to protest, despite demonstrations in recent days at detention facilities, including one in which hundreds of migrants broke free on Chios.

Europe’s plans are premised on the idea that Turkey is a safe country for refugees and that asylum seekers can apply for protection there. Turkey has already taken in nearly 3 million refugees from the Syrian war.

But human rights advocates argue that the deportation plan is fundamentally flawed and represents an abdication of European responsibility to help those seeking haven from conflicts. Amnesty International has called it “a historic blow to human rights.”

Boris Cheshirkov, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, said neither Greece nor Turkey has put in place adequate systems to ensure that deportees have full access to their rights. In particular, he said, authorities do not have enough personnel to process such a large volume of asylum claims.

“We are calling for a suspension of further returns until all safeguards are in place,” Cheshirkov said.

Since last year, Lesbos has been the primary gateway to Europe for those seeking an escape from war, oppression and poverty.

But now Lesbos’s main detention center — set among olive groves, ringed by barbed wire and patrolled by twitchy soldiers and police officers who will not let journalists near — is becoming dangerously overcrowded. Some 3,000 people are being held in a facility that was built to accommodate 2,000.

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Europe begins sending people back across the sea, defying human rights outcry – Washington Post