Greece says Turkey should take back migrants to uphold EU deal

Greece says Turkey should take back migrants to uphold EU deal
Greece's Migration Minister called on Turkey to take back migrants to demonstrate its willingness to uphold a 2016 deal with the EU.
3 min read
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi speaks during an interview in his Athens office [AFP]

Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi has called on Turkey to take back 1,450 migrants to demonstrate "willingness to cooperate" with the EU on a 2016 deal stemming would-be refugee flows.

"We have proposed to Turkey to restart (the) returns of those not entitled to protection," Mitarachi told AFP in an interview, in which he also insisted his country does not illegally push back migrants.

"I think it's a very good opportunity for Turkey to demonstrate their willingness to cooperate with the EU and uphold the joint statement," the minister said.

The accord - criticised by rights groups and since seen as inadequate by Ankara - foresaw the payment of 6 billion euros to Turkey to keep asylum seekers from crossing to Bulgaria and Greece.

According to the European Commission, 4.1 billion euros ($4.8 billion) have already been delivered to Turkey, and the remaining two billion have been contracted to projects to support refugees.

But Ankara disputes the EU figures, claiming that only 3.6 billion euros have been spent on Syrians, and stressing that Turkey has 3.7 million of them on its soil.

Since the accord, the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Greece has fallen sharply.

In 2015, at the height of the crisis, 856,000 crossed the Aegean Sea. This figure dropped to 173,000 the next year, and to only 30,000 in 2017. 

In 2020, likely because of the coronavirus pandemic, just 10,000 crossed.

EU member states will discuss ties with Turkey at their next summit on March 25 and 26.

'Prevented' boats from entering

Asked about persistent allegations of migrant pushbacks in Greek waters, Mitarachi said Greece is protecting its borders "in accordance to European regulations and international law."

"We haven't returned boats. We have prevented boats from entering European and Greek territory, but this is something allowed by the regulations," he said. 

Pushbacks prevent asylum-seekers from making refugee claims and if practised indiscriminately can constitute a violation of core EU human rights laws and the 1951 Geneva Convention.

The chief of EU border agency Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, has been under pressure for weeks over the allegations, but a recent investigation proved inconclusive.

It said no migrants were turned back in eight of the incidents examined, but added that it was not possible to clarify the details of five other instances of alleged rights violations.

Five-nation meeting

Greece on March 19 will host a two-day meeting with Cyprus, Italy, Malta and Spain to hammer out common proposals on the EU's new migration pact.

And Mitarachi later in March will accompany EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson to the island of Lesbos, which is housing over 8,500 asylum seekers.

Most of them live in a temporary tent camp hastily erected after the notorious facility of Moria burned down last year.

New camps for migrants are expected to be completed on the island of Samos by June, and on Kos and Leros by September, the minister said.

The minister insisted the Covid infection rate among 58,000 asylum seekers in Greek camps "is similar to the general population." He noted that just two asylum seekers have died of the virus.

A small group of migrants aged over 80 have been vaccinated - certain others refused - and the process will proceed according to age groups, he said.

Greece has recorded over 227,000 Covid-19 infections and over 7,200 deaths.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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