New deal slows Greece's migrant flow

  • 07/04/2016
New arrivals on the Greek islands from Turkey have dropped since the accord came into force on Monday (AAP)
New arrivals on the Greek islands from Turkey have dropped since the accord came into force on Monday (AAP)

By Lefteris Papadimas, Mehmet Emin Caliskan and Gabriela Baczynska

Turkey and Germany say an agreement between Ankara and the EU to stem the flow of migrants to the Greek islands is showing signs of success, but many are still trying to cross the sea and the route remains far from sealed off.

The accord, which came into force on Monday, aims to help end the chaotic arrival of migrants and refugees, most fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, after more than a million reached Europe last year.

The influx has threatened the EU's system of passport-free travel and prompted its executive on Wednesday to propose strengthening common asylum rules.

New arrivals on the Greek islands from Turkey dropped to 68 in the 24 hours to Wednesday morning from 225 the previous day, data from the Greek migration ministry showed.

That compared to a single day last October, during the peak of the crisis, when arrivals approached 9200 people.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the fall was a direct result of the EU-Turkey deal.

A spokesman for the German government, which lobbied sceptical European partners to back the accord and is under political pressure to show progress, also said things were moving in the right direction.

"It is functioning, and the (number of) illegal migrants is in decline," Davutoglu said during a visit to Helsinki.

Under the accord, migrants and refugees who cross the Aegean Sea illegally are sent back to Turkey.

Since Monday, 202 people, mostly from Pakistan, have been returned.

Greek and Turkish officials say more may be sent back this week.

But the number of illegal migrants arriving on the Greek islands fluctuates daily, and the UN refugee agency UNHCR was more cautious about whether the deal was deterring them.

"The conditions forcing these people to move, including onwards to Europe, are still present and many people are falling through the cracks," said Boris Cheshirkov, a UNHCR spokesman on the Greek island of Lesbos.

EU proposes stronger asylum approach

Meanwhile, the European Union's executive has proposed strengthening the bloc's common asylum rules in response to the chaotic arrival of more than a million migrants and refugees last year that has strained EU cohesion.

The proposal on Wednesday drew swift criticism from the Czech Republic, highlighting deep divisions about how to amend what is known as the Dublin rules, under which people must claim asylum in the first EU state they enter.

That system has left frontline states Greece and Italy unable and unwilling to offer asylum to all arrivals and left many migrants to head north, prompting border closures that threaten the EU's Schengen system of passport-free travel.

A first option presented by the European Commission would add a "corrective fairness mechanism" that would relocate asylum seekers from frontline states to elsewhere in the bloc - a method now being employed on an ad hoc basis.

A second is to create a new system that would ignore where people arrived in the EU and send them around the bloc according to a "permanent distribution key".

"In both cases, asylum seekers will be automatically redistributed between member states," the bloc's Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told a news conference.

"We need a fair share of responsibility and more solidarity ingrained in our system."

Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec responded on Twitter: "The proposal for reform of the European migration policy is based again on implementing compulsory quotas. We have repeatedly said NO to that."

The European Commission said it wanted to come up with legal proposals by the summer after EU states and institutions have given their views on the options.

The proposals appear to rule out maintaining the status quo, despite Prague and some other governments not wishing to see any change in a system under which they now take in very few refugees.