Sunday was “D-Day” for thousands of refugees and migrants crowding the Aegean island of Lesbos — their final chance to depart for Athens and the hope of an eventual resettlement in northern Europe.
With a blast from its siren, a giant ferry steamed out of the island’s Mytilini port at midday with 2,000 passengers, making way for a second, smaller vessel that would leave later with another 600 people aboard.
“I think we’re among the last fortunate ones,” said Mohammad Saban, a student from Aleppo booked to leave Sunday night with 11 family members.
But for those migrants who follow — even by a matter of hours — the future may be less hopeful. From Sunday, an audacious new plan agreed by the EU and Turkey to try to resolve the migrant crisis went into effect. Any irregular migrants arriving on Greek shores from Sunday will — however harrowing their journeys — be sent back to Turkey.
Even before the plan goes into action, there is widespread suspicion that it will never work, that it places impossible logistical demands on Greece, a nation already weakened by a protracted financial crisis.
Still, on Sunday Greek officials were working feverishly to to clear Lesbos of a backlog of some 5,000 migrants before midnight while readying the bureaucratic machinery to quickly process new arrivals and send them back across the Aegean.
Some 4,000 EU specialist staff are being assigned to strengthen Greece’s creaking asylum service. France and Germany alone are sending 500 asylum officers to islands targeted by people smugglers operating from Turkey, said an interior ministry official. The islands hotels are already filling with foreign aid workers and European bureaucrats.
Athens is also seeking extra security officers, translators — currently in short supply according to one Brussels official — and judges. The aim is to process up to 600 people a day on the islands.
Yet confusion about the deal appeared widespread on Lesbos, long the smugglers’ preferred destination. It has hosted close to half the 1m people who have crossed to the Greek islands since January last year.
“It’s quite frustrating being here and not getting precise directions from Athens,” one official on Lesbos said.
Meanwhile, the migrants were also working on scant information as they tried to make fateful decisions. At Kara Tepe, a reception centre run by local officials, Syrian refugees trapped on Lesbos for the last week said they were reluctant to head for the port on Sunday in case the ferries were headed not for Athens but Kavalla in northern Greece.
“We’ve been hearing they’re going to bus people straight from Kavalla port to the Turkish border for immediate expulsion,” said a lawyer from Homs, who declined to give his name. “We’ve already been screened here and registered as refugees. We don’t want to take the risk of being thrown out.”
Others planned to travel to the northern border with Macedonia, which closed two weeks ago, hoping it would soon reopen — if only briefly.
Mohammad, a bricklayer from Damascus, said he wanted to leave Greece as soon as possible because he feared losing refugee status if, under the new regulations, the Syrian capital was no longer classed as a conflict zone.
“I’ll take a chance and go to Idomeni [the unofficial camp at the Macedonian border]. I’ll wait a few days. If the border stays closed, I’ll make a deal with a smuggler to get to Germany,” he said.
For Greeks working on the front line with refugees, there is growing concern about the country’s changing role in the crisis. First it served as the prime transit, then as a holding pen for almost 50,000 migrants and refugees; from midnight, it will be the chief enforcer of a new EU policy requiring the readmission of failed asylum seekers to Turkey.
One official on Lesbos, where local authorities have co-operated closely with international charities to provide accommodation and services, said he was worried about having to detain new migrants arriving from Turkey.
A former military camp on the island where refugees and migrants were screened and identified before departing was being hastily converted over the weekend into a closed facility for processing asylum-seekers and holding those awaiting deportation.
“For months we’ve tried to ensure that people were looked after in a way that respects Europe’s humanitarian values,” the official said. “Detention is not a dignified way of treating refugees.”
Even as they rushed to prepare, others acknowledged their suspicions the agreement would fall part as the weather improves, allowing for a repeat of last summer’s surge in smuggling activity along the Turkish coast.
In spite of the EU agreement, 1,550 arrivals were reported on the islands over the weekend, close to the previous week’s average, according to the Greek interior ministry.
The beaches around Izmir on the Turkish coast that were once the launch point for smugglers were quiet on Sunday. But routes out of inlets near Edremit to the north and Çesme to the south appeared to be operating much as usual.
“The chances of the new system working are dependent on the numbers of arrivals falling,” said Panos Navrozidis, country director for the International Rescue Council’s operations in Greece. “If it’s saturated [with people] it will just collapse.”
Additional reporting by Alex Barker in Brussels and Mehul Srivastava in Istanbul
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