BRUSSELS – The European Union plan to contain the refugee crisis took a major step on Monday with the return to Turkey of 202 migrants and refugees who had not applied for asylum in Greece, and Germany received its first Syrian refugees under the program.
Both were important steps in launching the EU-Turkey deal agreed on March 18 that aims to see tens of thousands of migrants returned to Turkey and make the deadly and dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Greece an unworkable exercise.
Here is a look how the EU and Turkey plan to implement the deal:
— It has been described as a one-for-one operation: for every Syrian among the returnees to Turkey, one Syrian refugee already in Turkey would be resettled in Europe. Under this voluntary part of the plan, up to 72,000 Syrians would be brought to Europe.
Monday morning, 32 Syrians were sent to Germany and 11 to Finland. A further planeload is due in the Netherlands on Tuesday.
One-for-one should not be taken literally. "There will be a pool of Syrians from Turkey to be resettled and the numbers will come in alignment — which is difficult to see in these first early days," said EU Commision spokesman Margaritis Schinas.
— Under the deal, the EU says Greece has moved all migrants who arrived before March 20 to the mainland from the islands. Greece has returned 147 "irregular" migrants among those arrivals. At dawn on Monday, all "new irregular migrants" crossing from Turkey to Greece will be sent back. The EU will pay the transport costs.
— The agreement stipulated that Turkey would act to prevent new sea and land routes to Greece and would limit new crossings as much as possible. On March 20, arrivals of migrants in Greece still stood at 1,667. On Sunday, they stood at 200, the European Commission said.
— Though the agreement has been criticized by human rights activists and several political groups in the EU, the U.N. refugee agency says returns are so far "normal policy" but that it will be watching. Spokeswoman Melissa Fleming says those deported "did not express their intention to seek asylum."
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the ALDE liberal group in the European Parliament, said the Turkish parliament still had to approve the necessary conditions for fully legal returns. Anything less, he said, "is simply unacceptable."
In Turkey, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged police officers to show compassion to returnees and not to "distinguish them from our own citizens."