Friday 15 December 2017

Greece halts deportation of migrants to Turkey after one day

A woman holds her baby after disembarking at Lesbos. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/Getty
A woman holds her baby after disembarking at Lesbos. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/Getty

Nick Squires

The expulsion of migrants from Greece to Turkey was suspended yesterday after the authorities admitted it could take months to process thousands of asylum seekers stranded on the Aegean Islands.

A group of 202 mostly Pakistani and Afghan migrants were sent by boat from the islands of Lesbos and Chios on Monday, as the EU's plan to tackle Europe's refugee crisis got under way, but none followed them yesterday.

A rush of asylum applications from the islands, which have borne the brunt of the exodus from Turkey, meant there were not enough suitable candidates to ship back, Greek and Turkish authorities said.

Returns would restart "when there is a sufficient number" of migrants, said a spokesman for the Greek government.

Out of around 6,000 migrants who arrived on the two Aegean islands after the EU-imposed deadline of March 20, more than 2,300 have applied for asylum. A lack of officials means processing the applications could take months, hampering Europe's determination to deal with its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

"There will be a difficult few months ahead," said Maria Stavropoulou, the director of Greece's asylum service.

"We are dealing with people who speak 70 different languages and many have travelled to Greece without papers because they are escaping war."

Of the 400 migration officers promised by the EU, only 30 had arrived so far, she said. New local staff would take "months" to train.

"The Greeks asked for a lot of help but so far they haven't received it," said Jonas Hagensen of Medecins Sans Frontieres after touring the main refugee camp on Lesbos.

"They don't have the manpower on the scale that is needed," he added.

The UN High Commission for Human Rights said it was concerned that some of the migrants deported on Monday, the first under the terms of the EU-Turkey migration deal, may have been sent by mistake.

Greek police "forgot" to process the asylum claims of 13 of them.

On Chios, south of Lesbos, the Greek authorities were struggling to register and process 1,200 people in the island's detention camp.

Of the 640 who had been registered, most expressed a wish to apply for asylum. Even if an application is initially rejected, migrants and refugees have a right to appeal.

"Living conditions have deteriorated: people sleep outside; the food provision doesn't cover the needs of people; there's a lack of access to basic services and information," said Katerina Kitidi of the UN's refugee agency.

"We see many people arriving on Greek shores who should not be kept in closed facilities like this: victims of torture, rape, people with post-traumatic stress disorder, pregnant women and women who have recently given birth."

Manolis Vournous, the mayor of Chios, has reportedly threatened legal action against the Greek government unless conditions and order at the camp improve.

At the refugee camp on Lesbos, about 200 Pakistanis and Afghans held a protest, chanting "We want freedom" under the gaze of Greek riot police. They held placards saying, "We don't want to go to Turkey" and "Help".

"I would rather die here than go back to Turkey," said Mohammed Arqam (20), from Faisalabad in Pakistan. "If they make us go back to Turkey, I will commit suicide."

The camp is off-limits to journalists but it was possible to see, through the razor-wire fence, women carrying babies, toddlers playing in the dust and young men kicking a football.

The Greek army has been providing meals for around 2,700 people, but the camp now holds 3,000 or more. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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