EU official: No deaths recorded in Aegean Sea since EU-Turkey deal

No migrants are known to have died in the Aegean Sea since late March, when a deal between Turkey and the European Union aimed at curbing migration movements began to take effect, an EU official said Thursday.

The agreement seeks to put an end to a migration influx that saw more than 1 million people reach Europe last year. Most of them came via Turkey to Greece, undertaking dangerous sea journeys that not all survived.

Under the agreement, migrants and asylum seekers reaching the Greek islands as of March 20 can be returned to Turkey.

Since then, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of people arriving in Greece, according Maarten Verwey, who has been appointed by the European Commission to oversee the implementation of the deal.

In the month prior to the agreement with Turkey, a daily average of 16,077 people were reaching Greece, Verwey told EU lawmakers on Thursday. Since March 20, that number has fallen to an average of 399 per day, he added.

Up until March 21, Verwey said that 90 people had lost their lives at sea this year, adding that nobody has since then.

"That was one of the objectives of this agreement," he noted.

The deal - under which the EU has pledged to directly take in one Syrian from Turkey in return for every Syrian asylum seeker the country takes back - has had several teething problems.

The Syrian refugee transfers formally began on Monday, but so far Greece has only been able to return economic migrants to Turkey - those who are not considered in need of international protection.

This is about to change, according to Verwey, who said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had now signed new legislation after the EU had demanded that any returned Syrian must be protected in line with international law.

With the new legislation Turkey has confirmed on its part that Syrian refugees deported from Greece would "be given temporary protection should they ask for it."

It was not immediately clear whether the Turkish legislation met the EU's expectations.

Furthermore, Verwey said that a team of experts from the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) had now arrived in Greece to begin processing asylum requests.

Under the deal, people have the right to request asylum in Greece before being returned to Turkey. Athens can reject claims on the basis that anyone arriving from Turkey should have filed for protection in that country instead.

Of the 6,386 people who had reached the Greek islands since March 20, 4,261 had asked for asylum, Verwey said.

But he said that only 32 EASO asylum officers were in place so far, with more due to join them once they had been trained up. The job of these case workers is to prepare decisions, so that Greek officials can rule on each asylum request.

EASO has asked member states to provide an overall 400 asylum officers. Each of them is to be matched with an interpreter, to assist in interviewing asylum seekers as part of their assessment.

Deportations of migrants from the Greek islands back to Turkey meanwhile could resume on Friday, sources close to Greece's coastguard have told dpa.

"We can neither confirm nor deny this," a Greek government spokesman responded to enquiries from dpa.

The first 202 migrants had been returned to the port of Dikili in Turkey on Monday from the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios in accordance with the refugee deal between the EU and Turkey.

Amnesty Insternational meanwhile criticised that thousands of migrants were being held "arbitrarily in appalling conditions amid growing uncertainty, fear and despair over their fate under the new EU-Turkey deal," after the agency obtained access to detention centres on Lesbos and Chioas, where around 4,200 people are currently based.

These included many "particularly vulnerable people," such as pregnant women, small children and people with disabilities and trauma.

"On the edge of Europe, refugees are trapped with no light at the end of the tunnel. A setup that is so flawed, rushed and ill-prepared is ripe for mistakes, trampling the rights and well-being of some of the most vulnerable people," said Gauri van Gulik, AI's Deputy Director for Europe.

Last update: Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:49
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