At dawn today, the first 136 people, mainly Pakistanis, were deported to Turkey from Lesvos in Greece. To the sound of volunteers, aid workers and activists shouting about the misconduct, immorality and even illegality of the new, controversial deal between Turkey and the EU, several boats left the island heading for Dikili, a couple of hours away. The deportation policy has been slammed by the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as other rights groups, on ethical and legal grounds.
Opponents are taking issue with the agreement not only because of its highly questionable legality and definite immorality, but also the lack of investment in the procedures involved and the lack of training and personnel for the authorities in charge of implementing it; these include the police force and asylum services on Lesvos. Ewa Moncure, the Frontex spokesperson at the port, spoke to me after the boats, migrants and 136 of her colleagues “escorting” them on a 1-to-1 basis had departed. She explained that it was not their place to ensure that the refugees were in fact migrants aware of their right to claim asylum but who had instead decided willingly to accept deportation. The boats left this morning, she insisted, with people who had not wanted to claim asylum. After I pointed out that the pamphlets given to the migrants about their rights at registration were not translated into Urdu – only Arabic and English – she referred to the ministry for further clarification. In any case, many of the Pakistanis involved are illiterate and would need to have someone to explain the procedure.
Sami, a young Pakistani man, told me how the asylum system works. Pakistani migrants get a token from the “token office” and then have to wait in the queue at the “asylum office” at the other end of the camp. “I have missed three breakfasts in a row to stand in the queue from 6am,” he said. “When the office opened, the officer asked, ‘Who is Pakistani?’ When we identified ourselves, they removed us from the queue.” The discrimination against this group of asylum seekers is clear. They are also fleeing war, persecution and even genocide, but have been reduced by asylum officers, other migrants and policemen to the status of “illegal” or “economic” migrants. This is unreasonable and inaccurate; in over two months at the camp, I have not met a single person risking his life many times over on this journey simply to get a new job.
“The police handle us as though we are animals,” alleged Sami. “They shout at us to go away, even when we just ask for information.” It is worth noting that a total of 2,738 police officers voted in 18 polling stations near the central police HQ on Alexandra Avenue, with over 50 per cent of them voting for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.
Several volunteers have faced a crack-down for engaging with Pakistanis on the island, including myself, and have been detained without charge; Pakistanis are seen as “illegal” by default. They have been on hunger-strike and protesting against their treatment and lack of fair access to asylum procedures for several weeks.
Indeed, volunteers have mobilised to inform the Pakistanis of their rights independently, and arranged for a Facebook group to give advice at the port before departure, as verbal claims for asylum form a case against deportation. However, the boats were sent hours before volunteers were told they would be there, and the authorities had in any case forbidden us to enter the port and designated an area for the deportations where we would be out of earshot to inform the migrants of their rights.
For the past six weeks, the procedure for non-Iraqi, non-Syrian refugees and migrants has been somewhat questionable, with mixed and even false information spread inside the official camps in Moria before the registration point turned into a “hot spot”. The registration system has been linked and de-linked from asylum procedures constantly, throughout their stay in the camps. Registration means – more or less – deportation for Pakistanis, should they choose not to apply for asylum. It’s a choice that has been made for them in the turmoil of misinformation during the weeks of the deal being implemented. Even though registration was de-linked from the asylum system, the Pakistanis were unaware and still queued up along with the others, in the hope of continuing their travels before the Balkan route was closed. Volunteers told them of the new precarious development, giving them protection in the unofficial camp next door in Moria. Now, a month later, the police have rounded people up and registered them forcefully. However, there is no capacity for all asylum seekers to get processed timely, nor proper protection for the vulnerable or unaccompanied minors within the hot spot, leaving people outside with hardly any shelter, insufficient food and poor hygiene. Moria has already gone beyond its capacity of 2,000 people, 2,526 official refugees are in the detention centre.
Police sources on Lesbos said that there was a flurry of last-minute asylum applications among the 3,300 migrants there. “We… have over two thousand people who have stated their wish to seek asylum and we need to see a credible process go ahead with the Greek asylum service for those who wish to express their protection concerns,” Boris Cheshirkov, the UN refugee agency spokesman on Lesbos, told the Guardian. The number already processed is just 18 individuals at the Moria hot spot alone.
“We don’t know what is actually going to happen,” said senior UN migration official Peter Sutherland at the weekend, “but if there is any question of collective deportations without individuals being given the right to claim asylum, that is illegal.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.