ATHENS, Greece – Greece scrambled on Saturday, March 19, to begin the massive task of implementing a historic EU-Turkey migrant deal aimed at stemming the flow of refugees fleeing war and conflict in the Middle East.
A key part of the agreement will take effect from Sunday midnight when all migrants arriving on the Greek islands will be designated for return to Turkey, a Greek government source told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Hundreds of security and legal experts are set to arrive in Greece to help with the task, described as "Herculean" by the head of the EU's executive arm.
Ahead of the deadline, authorities reported around 1,500 people have crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece's islands in the past 24 hours, more than double the day before and compared with just several hundred per day earlier in the week.
With over 40,000 migrants already in Greece, the debt-hit country could not take on this new task without major assistance from its European partners, including the immediate deployment of 2,300 experts, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said.
"Four hundred experts in asylum, 400 interpretors and translators and 1,500 security specialists," said Tsipras, detailing the assistance to be sent to manage the migrant deal approved at an EU summit on Friday.
In practice, the actual return of migrants to Turkey will begin from April 4, according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key backer of the scheme.
For every Syrian refugee expelled from Greece, the deal calls for the EU to resettle one refugee directly from Turkey.
"This is a Herculean task facing us," European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has said.
In total some 4,000 border officials and other experts will be needed to carry out the agreement that will cost the EU up to 300 million euros ($338 million) over six months.
The assistance includes experts who can address the concerns of rights groups who fear the scheme could fail to protect the rights of those refugees, mainly from Syria and Iraq, to seek asylum.
Amnesty International has callled the deal a "historic blow to human rights."
PROTESTS. Migrants and refugees take part in a protest march calling for justice for migrants in central Athens, on March 19, 2016. About 3.000 Greeks and migrants from various refugee camps in Attica participated, most of them from Afghanistan. Panayotis Tzamaros/AFP
'No concessions' on rights
But EU officials have stressed that each application for asylum will be treated individually, with full rights of appeal and proper oversight.
Tsipras also insisted that human rights would be respected. "We will not make any concessions" in that area, he said.
The United States called the agreement brokered by EU and Turkish officials "an important step" and was confident it "will be implemented in full accordance with EU and international law."
Around 4,000 people including women and children have drowned crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece in flimsy smugglers' boats, including 400 this year alone.
For its cooperation to stem the flow of refugees, Turkey won an acceleration of its long-stalled bid for EU membership, the doubling of refugee aid to 6 billion euros ($6.8 billion) and visa-free travel for its nationals to Europe's Schengen passport-free zone by June.
The deal also envisages major aid for Greece, where tens of thousands of refugees are already trapped in dire conditions after Balkan countries shut their borders.
As of Saturday, Greek authorities said there were 47,500 migrants in the country, of which 8,200 were on the islands and some 10,500 massed at Idomeni, on the closed border with Macedonia.
In the squalid border camp that a Greek minister described as " a modern day Dachau", refugees pondered the reports of the new EU migrant deal and what step they should take next.
Having come from Damascus, 30-year-old Mohammed says he's ready to take a bus to Athens and enroll in the European program.
But another Syrian refugee Yasmine says she will continue to wait at the Macedonian border.
"They can't prevent us from joining our husbands who were able to enter Germany this summer, " the former resident of Aleppo told AFP surrounded by her two children and two sisters. – Catherine Boitard, AFP/Rappler.com