ATHENS, Greece – Government officials in Greece signaled Saturday that implementation of a migration agreement between the European Union and Turkey could only occur gradually, with key details still to be worked out on how migrants newly arriving from Turkey will be processed and returned.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met ministers and senior officials involved in the migration crisis, hours after the deal was reached in Brussels to send back migrants arriving on the Greek islands to Turkey, starting Sunday.
Hours before that implementation was due to start, it remained unclear how migrants would be sent back. Greek officials had previously suggested that the European border protection agency Frontex could escort chartered private vessels back to Turkey.
Yiannis Balafas, the deputy interior minister, said swift screening procedures in the Greek islands would require additional staff promised by the European Union.
“(Migrants) will be returned after they have been swiftly processed. That is why we need the technical assistance,” Balafas told private Mega television.
In central Athens, several thousand migrants and protesters staged rallies against the EU-Turkey deal. Afghan migrants marched to the EU commission building in the center of the capital, chanting “Open the Borders” and “We are Human.”
The rallies ended peacefully. Protests also were held in other parts of Greece, including Thessaloiniki in northern Greece and on the island of Lesbos. And several thousand people gathered in Spain’s northeastern port city of Barcelona to protest what they called Europe’s “racist and uncaring” approach to migrants.
Greece is expecting some 2,300 European experts, including migration officers and translators, to help implement the deal.
“Obviously, none of those people have arrived yet,” a government official told the Associated Press, asking not be identified pending official announcements. “What we have at the moment is a political decision. This must now be put into practice.”
Migrants on Lesbos and other islands in the east Aegean Sea were being taken by ferry to the mainland ports of Piraeus and Kavala where they will be placed in shelters and eligible for an EU-wide relocation program.
“Migrants on the islands will be moved to mainland shelters, including 2,500 people on Lesbos who are being transported to three different shelter locations,” the government official said.
From Sunday onward, migrants who arrive on the islands will be screened and their identities recorded before being sent back to Turkey.
Germany’s interior minister said the Balkan route that migrants have been using to reach Central Europe is “finished” now that Turkey has agreed to take back people who arrive in Greece illegally.
In a statement Saturday, Thomas de Maiziere described the deal between the European Union and Turkey as a “turning point in the refugee crisis.”
At the Greek-Macedonian border Saturday, no new arrivals were reported by relief agencies at a giant makeshift camp near the border village of Idomeni where about 10,000 migrants are stranded.
Early Saturday, several migrants tried to sneak into Macedonia under cover of darkness only to be turned back. After they returned to Idomeni, some of the migrants said they had been beaten by the Macedonian border guards.