ATHENS, Greece – Greece is pressing ahead with plans to start deporting migrants and refugees back to Turkey next week, despite mounting concern from the United Nations and human rights organizations that Syrians could be denied proper protection while some are allegedly even being forced back into their war-torn country.
Lawmakers in Athens Friday were due to back draft legislation, fast-tracked through parliament, to allow the returns to start as soon as Monday.
The operation would see migrants and refugees who arrived on Greek islands after March 20 put on boats and sent back to Turkey.
Several Greek officials with knowledge of the planning told the AP that deportations are likely to start from the island of Lesbos, with migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries whose asylum claims are considered inadmissible. The transport, the officials said, will be carried out under heavy security escort — with one police minder for every migrant — using buses that will travel from island detention camps and are likely to board straight onto chartered vessels.
The officials asked not to be identified because plans for the forced returns have not been formally announced.
The imminent deportations are backed by the European Union following its recent agreement with Turkey, and triggered more violence at detention camps in Greece.
Authorities on the Greek island of Chios said several hundred people broke out of an overcrowded detention camp and headed to the island's main town on foot, following overnight clashes between Syrian and Afghan detainees that left five people injured.
The clashes early Friday are the latest in a series of violent incidents at shelters and gathering points across Greece, where more than 50,000 migrants and refugees are stranded following Balkan border closures supported by the European Union.
More than 10,000 of those stranded remain camped out at the Greek-Macedonian border, ignoring calls by the government to move voluntarily to organized shelters.
In Geneva, Switzerland, the United Nations refugee agency, or UNHCR, urged Greece and Turkey to provide further safeguards for asylum seekers before the returns begin, noting that conditions were worsening by the day for more than 4,000 people being held in detention on Greek islands.
And rights group Amnesty International, which has strongly opposed the EU-Turkey agreement from the start, said in a report Friday that it had evidence of Turkish authorities rounding up Syrians and sending them back across the border to their conflict-torn country.
The group said Turkey has been expelling around 100 men, women and children on an almost daily basis since mid-January.
"EU leaders have willfully ignored the simplest of facts: Turkey is not a safe country for Syrian refugees," Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia Director John Dalhuisen said.
Greek officials did not respond to the criticism directly, but insisted the rights of detained asylum seekers were being protected.
"I assure you that we will strictly observe human rights procedures, not what people are inventing, but what is required under the circumstances," Migration Affairs Minister Ioannis Mouzalas told parliament.
"I was yesterday in Geneva yesterday, and the UNHCR tweeted positive things about our country."
Becatoros reported from Idomeni, Greece. Lorne Cook in Brussels, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Greece, contributed.
UNHCR Statement: http://ow.ly/10aP3I
Amnesty International statement: http://ow.ly/10adlb