At about 9.45am on Monday, a man stepped off a ferry in the small Turkish port of Dikili and moved silently towards a group of waiting officials. In his hands was a red bag and, on his arm, a policeman.
For the hundreds of cameramen wobbling on a line of rocks on the other side of the harbour, it was hard to glean his nationality, let alone his name. But that barely mattered to the photographers. Whoever he might be, he was the first of 202 people to be returned from Greece to Turkey on Monday under the terms ofthe EU’s deportation deal. Thousands more may follow in the coming weeks. The cameras clicked.
For politicians watching in Europe, this was one small step for an anonymous man, but one giant leap for the continent. Finally, they had created a means of curbing the Aegean smuggling route, which brought more than 850,000 people toEurope via the Greek islands in 2015. It was, said an approving EU spokesman, “very well organised”.
The day certainly passed calmly – unexpectedly so, after migrant riots on the Greek islands over the weekend, and simultaneous anti-refugee protests from wary residents in Dikili. On the island of Lesbos, which lies just across the Aegean Sea from Dikili, the 136 deportees boarded two Turkey-bound boats in what some witnesses described as a “sedate state”. None looked up, waved or acknowledged the small group of onlookers at the quay.
On Chios, a Greek island farther to the south, violence briefly erupted as police attempted to transfer selected deportees to a third ferry. But by the time the 202 arrived in Turkey, all was quiet. There they were quietly shuffled on to waiting buses, their exact moves screened from the prying eyes of the press by a series of fences and tarpaulins.
Then followed a serene procession of coaches towards a distant detention camp in north-west Turkey, as watching residents expressed relief that no refugees would be settled in their pretty seaside town.
But, on the rocks at the port, not everyone was so impressed. Local refugee campaigners said the calmness of proceedings belied the horror of what they represented. “This is the bargaining and bartering of human bodies,” said Baran Doğan, a Turkish activist, referring to the terms of the deportation deal – which will see one Syrian sent to Europe by legal means for every Syrian returned successfully from Greece to Turkey. “It’s treating humans as goods,” Doğan said.
The worst of the trading may be yet to come. As calm as the scenes may have seemed to the circus of waiting journalists, whose numbers may have exceeded those of the returned migrants, Monday was not a true test of the deal. Only two of the 202 deportees were Syrian. The rest were mostly Pakistanis, and so could have been deported back to Turkey under pre-existing international agreements, or Afghans, who the Greek government claimed had elected to return to Greece of their own accord.
Migration specialists said the real test would come if and when the Greek authorities tried to deport the thousands of Syrians who still want to claim asylum in Greece. The text of the EU deal claims that almost all refugees can be returned to Turkey, on the contentious assumption that it is a safe country for refugees; Greece’s asylum officials will decide over the next few days and weeks whether this claim has legal basis.
Human rights monitors who gathered on Lesbos were quick to call Monday’s operation symbolic. Some went so far as to describe it as a photo opportunity for the western media, but simultaneously expressed concerns at the level of secrecy surrounding parts of the process. Journalists and activists were caught off-guard by police deploying buses to collect detainees on Lesbos and Chios at the crack of dawn, several hours earlier than announced.
“It is absolutely mind-boggling that neither the media nor human rights organisations had access to the detention facilities to monitor the asylum procedures,” said a Human Rights Watch spokesman, Wenzel Michalski, at the main port on Lesbos where, hours earlier, 136 “non-asylum seekers” had been put on boats and expelled to Turkey. “What do they have to hide?” he asked.
Government figures released on Monday showed there were 52,451 migrants and refugees stranded in Greece after Macedonia and other eastern European countries moving to close the Balkan migrant trail.
With tensions mounting in camps nationwide – and detainees, fearing imminent deportation, breaking out of a holding centre on Chios last week – authorities were determined to give the impression of order and non-resistance. “Every returnee was accompanied by a police escort,” said Eva Moncure, a spokeswoman for the EU border agency Frontex.
Police escorts included French, Estonian, Latvians, Danish and Lithuanian officers. Turkish migrations officials were also on board. But Moncure admitted the hard part lay ahead.
Up in the hills above Mytilene, more than 2,800 migrants from Syria, Iraq andAfghanistan are being held in a detention camp surrounded with barbed wire, daubed with graffiti and guarded around the clock, outside the village of Moria. An overwhelming 90% of the inmates have sought asylum – applications that will inevitably delay the deportation process as requests are examined and heard. The EU-Turkey agreement works on the assumption of relocations, readmissions and resettlement working simultaneously.
“I hate to say this but [today’s] were easy cases,” Moncure told the Guardian. “I really cannot tell you when the next readmission will happen.”
Pakistani detainees, in snatched conversations from behind the camp’s razor-wire fence, said they too had expressed a desire to be granted asylum, only to have their requests repulsed.
In the hot midday sun, police shooed away reporters, insisting the camp was no longer open to the public. “The rules have changed,” one told the Guardian. “You have to leave.”
Conditions in the camp are believed to have deteriorated dramatically following the withdrawal of the United Nation’s refugee agency and NGOs in disgust at last month’s deal.
The camp has become overcrowded, with migrants still landing on nearby beaches – albeit at a far slower rate than last month. Even as the expulsions were under way, a rubber dinghy with about 40 men, women and children arrived from the shores of Turkey; on the other side of the Aegean, dozens of others were arrested trying to follow in their wake.
Greece-based volunteers, who protested at the quay on Lesbos, said they would visit the camp at Moria “with megaphones” to inform detainees of their rights.
“This is an appalling deal. What we are hearing from authorities is that no one wanted to apply for asylum but the question is how do we know?” said Steffi de Pous, a Dutch volunteer on the island. “These people risked their lives to get here. Were they given the right information? Did they know their rights?”
Monitors with Amnesty International on Lesbos said the test would come in the weeks ahead when the eyes of the global media were no longer on Lesbos or Dikili.
“The most important thing now is what happens to those in Moria who have applied for asylum and fear that they are next,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty’s deputy Europe director. “It’s what happens when the media is not looking that will matter most.”