It remains to be seen when – and if – Friday’s deal clinched between Brussels and Ankara will permanently stem the flow of asylum seekers arriving on the Greek islands.
Nearly 900 migrants crossed the Aegean Sea to Greek islands on Sunday, as the deal between the European Union and Turkey went into force, according to the country’s migration officials. The refugees told officials they were aware of the agreement but intended to try to enter the European Union and seek asylum nevertheless.
About 1,500 people had already arrived on Friday, more than double the day before, putting even greater pressure on the debt-hit nation.
Giorgos Kyritsis, a spokesman with Greek’s migration department, told the Agence France Presse news agency that the country needs more time to handle the registrations and deportations. “A plan like this cannot be put in place in only 24 hours,” he said.
Under the agreement reached between E.U. and Turkish leaders, from Sunday all migrants and refugees reaching the Greek islands are to be deported back to Turkey after they are registered, and for every Syrian returned, the European Union will resettle one from a Turkish refugee camp, with up to 72,00 refugees to be divided up among the E.U. member states.
The deportations are planned to take effect from April 4, when Greece is expected to have a fast-track process for assessing asylum claims in place.
With the deal, the European Union aims to block a main route used by migrants from Syrian and other war-torn countries in the Middle East to enter Europe and discourage people smugglers.
“The E.U.-Turkey agreement is the biggest and more important step toward solving the refugee crisis.”
Peter Altmaier, Angela Merkel’s chief of staff at the chancellory, and the go-to-person on implementing her refugee strategy, called the accord “the biggest and more important step toward solving the refugee crisis,” in an interview with the Rheinishe Post newspaper.
Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrat premier of the Hamburg city-state also praised the package. “It is right to come to an agreement with Turkey,” he told Handelsblatt. At the end of the day, he added, Turkey is one of the countries “we promised a European future decades ago.”
But the deal is not without its critics. Amnesty International referred to the move as a “blow to human rights.” And Bavaria’s state premier Horst Seehofer, an outspoken critic of Ms. Merkel’s liberal refugee policy, cautioned in an interview with the Bild newspaper about calling the pact a “breakthrough,” and warned that Germany could end up accepting many of the agreed 72,000 refugees.
The European Union has also agreed to dispatch a special task force of 4,000 people, including judges, interpreters and border guards. As part of that deal, Germany and France announced plans to send each 200 police officers and officials to evaluate asylum applicants.
The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, worked over the weekend to secure further aid commitments for Greece. A meeting on the situation was said to be “promising,” but it remains unclear how the 72,000 refugees will be divided up among the E.U. member states.
In return for its cooperation, Turkey has won E.U. support to double refugee aid to €6 billion ($6.8 billion), allow visa-free travel for its citizens in Europe’s Schengen passport-free zone and accelerate its long-stalled bid to join the European Union.
The deal also calls for major aid for Greece, where the number of migrants and their living conditions have reached alarming dimensions. Authorities estimate the total number at around 48,000, including 8,200 on the islands and about 10,500 at the Idomeni camp on the Macedonian border.
The European Union hopes to relocate 20,000 Syrian asylum seekers by mid-year.
Nearly 145,000 people, mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, have arrived in Greece so far this year, about 60 percent of them women and children, according to the United Nations,
Around 4,000 people have drowned trying to cross the Aegean Sea in boats, including around 400 this year alone.
More than 1 million refugees entered the European Union last year, with the vast majority of them now in Germany.
Currently, only about 100 refugees are arriving in Germany per day, according to the interior ministry.
Turkey is already hosting more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees, who have fled the five-year civil war. The government in Ankara says it has spent more than €9 billion on caring for refugees.
As the war continues to rage across the border in Syria, the likelihood that Turkey will become entangled in the conflict increases. According to investigators, the suicide bomber who killed four people in Istanbul on Saturday had links to the terrorist group Islamic State.