Scenes of chaos awaited thousands of European Union staff due to start arriving on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios today to begin processing asylum seekers under a controversial deal to deport them back to Turkey.
The eastern Aegean Islands are struggling to cope with a humanitarian and public order crisis after several international organisations pulled out of refugee camps last week in protest at a scheme they say is inhumane.
The UNHCR, Mecidin Sans Frontiers, the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and the Norwegian Refugee Council all halted their logistical and aid programmes for refugees on the islands this week, saying that they wanted no part in a system of detention and deportation.
Protests erupted in detention camps on Lesbos and Chios where living conditions have become increasingly squalid following the withdrawal of the NGOs. Clashes also broke out between Greek security forces and activists. While arrivals have declined significantly, boats are still making the trip and there are questions over how rapidly the 4000-strong EU team will be able to process the asylum claims.
The returns are to begin on April 4, with one Syrian refugee to be relocated from a Turkish camp to Europe in exchange for each migrant deported. The aim is for 6000 relocations to be completed within the next month and at least 20,000 by mid-May 2016. An estimated 47,500 migrants are stranded on Greek territory after the route through the Balkans was shut.
At the Greece-Macedonia border yesterday, hundreds of migrants tried to force their way through police lines. They were pushed back by Iraqi and Syrian refugees who insisted they were not taking part in the protest, which they said was being encouraged by activists.