For months, migrants have placed all their hopes upon the Aegean Sea, piling into dinghies and braving the illegal passage from Turkey to this Greek island, their gateway to Europe and the West.
Today, as 200-odd migrants were placed on ferries and sent back in the opposite direction, it became a passage of dashed hopes, as the European Union took its first step to stem the largest movement of people across the continent since the end of World War II.
Part of a controversial EU deal with Turkey, the numbers so far are minuscule – 136 from Lesbos and 66 from the other popular landing spot in the Greek islands, Chios. But they are set to grow to thousands of deportations. The high stakes plan, cobbled together under pressure from growing anti-immigration sentiment in Europe, has angered human rights defenders, some of whom have quit in protest and promised to challenge its legality.
No one knows whether it will work. But the first two ferries in Lesbos that departed as the sun rose over the Strait of Mytilini sent a message that Europe’s doors are closed to illegal passage and that a new era for migrants and refugees has begun.
“The future of migration policy [in the EU] is about border restrictions, and I would say at almost any cost,” says François Crepeau, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.
The new reality is already tangible at two camps on Lesbos that are just a two-minute drive from one another.
The state-run Moria facility is set on a hillside of olive trees, and anyone who arrived after March 20, when the EU-Turkey deal was signed, has been sent here. It holds some 2,600 migrants – well over capacity – of the 3,300 estimated to be on the island. In the past month a double fence was erected and topped with barbed wire, protecting a flimsier one that marked a less militarized era for the camp. A police officer pushes journalists away as they attempt to interview asylum seekers on the other side.
Just down the hill is the city-run asylum center Kara Tepe. Syrians and Iraqis who arrived prior to the deal come and go freely. Two women pushing strollers board a bus to head into town for a walk around the port, where the 136 migrants were just deported. Others return from shopping.
Mohammed Alsayed, a Syrian who was studying English literature before the civil war worsened and who left the city of Aleppo recently, arrived two days before the deal was struck. “We are not here for money or jobs, we are here to be able to live," he says, noting that he is grateful he got in before the deadline. If I were in their situation, and was being sent back, I’d fear my dreams would be destroyed, my dream to live.”
Another Syrian pipes up, “How can they open the borders, and then just close them?”
Forcing migration underground?
The first migrants deported today were primarily from Bangladesh and Pakistan, and authorities say they did not apply for asylum. But under the deal the EU has said it will resettle one Syrian asylum-seeker living in Turkey for each Syrian returned. Those returned will be sent to the back of the queue for the resettlement program.
The EU also promised aid money for Turkey and the prospect of easing visa restrictions for Turkish citizens traveling in the EU.
Defenders of the plan say it is intended to discourage migrants from taking the dangerous passage across the Aegean and thereby force smugglers out of business. The first Syrians to be relocated from Turkey under the deal were expected to arrive to other European nations, including Germany, today.
But many say it will only have the reverse effect, creating the kind of “balloon effect” seen in the drug wars in Latin America, where clamping down on one group or area has resulted in simply pushing it elsewhere.
“The more you repress the mobility of people in need of mobility, the more you push them into the underground,” says Mr. Crepeau. “We’ve seen that in the war on drugs, and prohibition in the 1930s in America. Those wars are not won. You win them by taking over the market."
A pending legal challenge
It is a high-risk plan for Europe, and one for which there is no alternative. It was formed as Austria restricted the numbers of migrants who could enter the country, generating a domino effect across the Balkan route. Even though officials say arrivals to Greece from Turkey have gone down since March 20, many migrants continue to come – including this morning, as the deportations began.
Human rights group say Europe has abandoned its legacy protecting human rights, and plan to challenge in court the premise that Turkey is a “safe country” for asylum seekers. Major aid organizations quit their work in Moria. Amnesty International, on the eve of the deportations, called it “an historic blow to human rights.”
A group of protesters stood at the port in Mytilini on Lesbos this morning after the ferries left chanting “EU, shame on you!” as a gaggle of media from around the world filmed. They held signs reading “Stop the dirty deal.” Another read, “One world.”
Those from the island who have supported refugees voiced outrage that a place of welcome has become the place where refugees will now be pushed out.
“This island has a history of democracy and human rights," says Alex Papoutsis, one of the protesters. "It has shown a lot of solidarity to refugees." Now, he says, he is witnessing the manifestation of "fortress Europe."