New migrant numbers halve as hardline EU policy bites
The number of migrants pouring into Europe across the Mediterranean dropped by more than half in March, new figures have shown, boosting hopes that Europe's tough new policy towards migrants is having a deterrent effect.
The drop in numbers from 57,000 in February to 25,000 this month comes after the closure of the so-called Balkan route into northern Europe and the announcement that Europe would begin mass deportations of migrants who arrived in the Greek islands after March 20 this year.
The flow slowed even more sharply following the announcement of the EU-Turkey deportation deal, with a total of 1,331 arriving since March 21, the day after the accord took effect. Although officials cautioned this was partly caused by poor weather.
The figures compiled by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) provide the first evidence that Europe's new hardline policy on refugees is succeeding in choking off the flow of migrants which topped 1.1m people last year, plunging the continent in to political crisis.
The new figures were released as European planners work with Greek authorities to create the legal and logistical framework to begin deporting migrants back to Turkey from holding camps on the Greek islands, with the first ferries scheduled to leave for Turkey next Monday.
Officials in Athens said that preparations were continuing although still faced several hurdles before the scheme could be implemented.
"We are preparing, but the ball is in Turkey's court," an official said.
Greece now has more than 50,000 migrants who have been trapped in the country since the Balkan route closed, about 12,000 of whom are camped in squalid conditions in a makeshift camp at Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border.
Efforts by Greek authorities to convince the migrants to move into purpose-built camps where conditions are better have been frustrated by the repeated circulation of false rumours that the border-crossing was about to open.
Officials said yesterday they were planning to use loudspeakers in the Idomeni encampment to combat disinformation and encourage migrants to go in to official camps.
Conditions have also reportedly deteriorated on the Greek Islands where official figures show some 4,289 migrants are currently being held in detention camps, having arrived after March 20 when the new rules came in to force.
Residents in the camps said that conditions had worsened after many leading international NGOs, including Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and Save the Children pulled out in protest at the EU's detention and deportation proposal.
On Lesbos at Moria, where one detention centre is sited, an Afghan migrant who gave his name only as Tariq, said he was contemplating buying forged papers to show he had arrived before March 20, in order to board a ferry to the mainland.
"We sleep outside on the ground, with one blanket between two of us," he said whilst showing pictures of others in the camp also sleeping outside. "The huts and tents are full, full of women and children. Any newcomers, even families, now have to sleep outside."
Journalists have been denied access to the camps, although the claims of over-crowding in camps do not tally with official Greek statistics which show a surfeit of 1,400 places on Lesbos itself.
With Europe's self-imposed deadline now less than a week away, the pressure is building on Europe and Turkey to live up to expectations and commence deportations.
British sources said they remained "guardedly optimistic" that some deportations could be begin on that date, particularly of Moroccans and Syrians whose cases are less legally complex than those of Afghans, Iraqis and Eritreans whose legal status in Turkey is less clear. (© Daily Telegraph London)