DIKILI, Turkey (AP) — A controversial European Union plan to curb migration and smash smuggling rings in Turkey began Monday as 202 migrants from two Greek islands were piled onto boats and shipped back to Turkey.
Under heavy security, authorities on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios deported people from 11 nations — the first in a plan that has drawn strong criticism from human rights advocates but is seen by some European nations as the only way to resolve the continent’s migration crisis.
The first vessel from Lesbos was escorted into the Turkish port of Dikili by the Turkish coast guard as a helicopter hovered overhead. The migrants were taken to red-and-white tents for registration and health checks.
About a dozen people stood at the port holding a banner that read “Welcome refugees. Turkey is your home.” That sentiment came in sharp contrast to protests over the weekend by locals who feared that Dikili would turn into a warehouse for refugees.
A second vessel motored in from Lesbos and a third from the nearby island of Chios later Monday.
Greek authorities said a total of 191 men and 11 women were sent back. Those included 130 people from Pakistan, 42 from Afghanistan, 10 from Iran, five from Congo, four from Sri Lanka, three from Bangladesh, three from India, one each from Iraq, Somalia and Ivory Coast, and two Syrians who had asked to be sent back.
Those who arrived from Lesbos were sent to “reception and removal center” in the northwestern Kirklareli province on the Black Sea, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency. It said the Syrians would be placed in refugee camps and other migrants would be deported.
In an address to police officers in Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged them to show “compassion'” to the returning migrants and said Syrian refugees from camps in Turkey would be sent to Europe.
In the other half of the plan, 16 Syrian refugees from Turkey flew into the central German city of Hannover on Monday to be resettled and 16 more were expected on a flight later in the day.
Turkey and the European Union reached a deal last month that says migrants who reach Greece illegally from Turkey after March 20 will be returned to Turkey unless they qualify for asylum. For every Syrian turned back, a Syrian refugee is to be resettled from Turkey to the EU.
The agreement aims to deter people from making the short but dangerous journey with smugglers to Greek islands from the Turkish coast.
More than 52,000 migrants and refugees are stranded in Greece following the border closures of European nations further north, but only those who arrived after March 20 — about 4,000 so far — are being detained for deportation.
Monday was a symbolic benchmark in the agreement that has been plagued by concerns over human rights and the adequacy of preparations made in Greece and Turkey. The numbers transferred, however, were smaller than initially forecast.
And while the number of new arrivals in Greece has dropped since March 20, potential asylum-seekers are still taking smuggling boats across the Aegean Sea, including 339 people who authorities say landed from Sunday morning to Monday morning.
Giorgos Kyritsis, a spokesman for a Greek government refugee crisis committee, said 136 migrants were deported from Lesbos and 66 from Chios, where riot police clashed with residents hours earlier during a protest against the expulsions.
“This is the first day of a very difficult time for refugee rights. Despite the serious legal gaps and lack of adequate protection in Turkey, the EU is forging ahead with a dangerous deal,” Giorgos Kosmopoulos, head of Amnesty International in Greece, told The Associated Press from Lesbos.
“Turkey is not a safe third country for refugees. The EU and Greek authorities know this and have no excuse,” he said.
The deportations started with migrants who did not apply for asylum or had their applications declared inadmissible.
“Even if this first group is not refugees, what we are seeing here is symbolic kickoff of what might be a very dangerous practice of returns to Turkey,” Kosmopoulos said.
Gatopoulos reported from Athens, Greece. Dominique Soguel and Ayse Wieting in Istanbul contributed.