ATHENS, Greece (AP) — An agreement between the European Union and Turkey to deport migrants currently on Greek islands back to the Turkish mainland is to take effect Monday morning, but the operation is threatened by a shortage of personnel.
Frontex, the EU's border management agency, is responsible for the implementation of the deal, but has less than one tenth of the 2,300 officers that it needs to do the job. The agency relies on the EU's 28 member states to provide translators and other officials to process asylum seekers, but these have not been forthcoming, even as the continent faces its worst refugee crisis since World War II.
The EU-Turkey deal aims to control the mass influx of people into Europe, many of whom have crossed the dangerous Aegean Sea with the help of smugglers. Under the deal, migrants arriving illegally in Greece will be returned to Turkey if they do not apply for asylum or if they make an asylum claim that is rejected.
For every person sent back, EU countries would take in one person confirmed to have made a legitimate asylum request.
The deal was originally supposed to take effect immediately, on March 20, but has faced delays due to the shortage of personnel and other problems.
The looming implementation of the deal and the closure of European borders have slowed the flow of people into Greece but not stopped it altogether. In the 24 hours leading to 7:30 a.m. Sunday, 514 arrived, according to authorities. There are now over 6,100 migrants in the Aegean islands, more than half in Lesbos.
Giorgos Kyritsis, a spokesman for the Greek government's refugee crisis committee, told The Associated Press that Frontex only has 200 officers in place to accompany the deported migrants, but almost none of the other personnel that would facilitate screening those who apply for asylum.
Other agencies, such as UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, are trying to help migrants go through the asylum application process. Many avoid even applying, certain they will be deported anyway.
Frontex has secured three vessels that will make the short trip from the island of Lesbos to the Turkish coast starting Monday morning. It aims to deport about 750 migrants, mostly from Pakistan and Afghanistan, who either did not apply for asylum or whose applications have been rejected, in the first three days. To safeguard against unrest, the number of deported migrants will be matched by the same number of Frontex border guards on each ship.
"We do not know how this operation will proceed...This is being done for the first time and it raises unprecedented legal issues as well," Kyritsis said.
The Greek government must also deal with the over 46,000 migrants and refugees now on the mainland, more than 20,000 of whom live in makeshift camps on the northern border with Macedonia and in Athens. They have become stuck after Macedonia and other counties have closed their borders, essentially closing off a popular route through the Balkans into Western Europe.
The Greek government wants to empty the makeshift camps and move the people to organized camps without using force. But many, especially in the Idomeni camp on the Macedonian border, refuse to budge, sometimes believing rumors that the closed borders will reopen.
Kyritsis said it appeared that "some people are acting in bad faith" in spreading false hopes.
"If we find out they are also connected with migrant (exploitation) networks, we will use the full force of the law on them," he said.
Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Idyli Tsakiri, in Idomeni, and Raphael Kominis and Nikolia Apostolou, in Lesbos, contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to .read that the deal was originally supposed to take effect on March 20, instead of March 19.