A last-minute flurry of asylum applications by migrants desperate to avoid expulsion from Greece to Turkey will likely cause a two-week “lag” in an EU deportation plan slammed by rights groups, a Greek official said Wednesday.
Nikos Xydakis, junior foreign minister for European affairs, indicated there would likely be few migrants sent back to Turkey over the next two weeks, following the first deportation of around 200 people on Monday.
“We knew there would be a lag, an intermediate period before the program takes off, of at least two weeks to get through the first batch of (asylum) applications,” Xydakis told reporters.
He nevertheless said the next set of expulsions would likely take place “from Friday onwards”, without going into further detail.
Athens stressed that the people shipped back to Turkey on Monday were migrants who had not claimed asylum.
But the UN's refugee agency has expressed concern that 13 of them, mostly Afghans, had expressed a wish to claim asylum but were not registered in time.
Xydakis said some two dozen EU legal experts had arrived so far to assist the asylum process, compared to hundreds of security agents from EU border agency Frontex.
“This is the weakness of the whole procedure. It is easier to deploy police officers than experts in refugee law, interpreters, debriefers,” he said. But he added: “They are coming.”
Once the system is fully up and running, Greece has said it can process asylum claims in two weeks.
“In two weeks (authorities) can get through 400 to 500 applications,” Xydakis said.
Under the terms of the EU-Turkey deal, all “irregular migrants” arriving on the Greek islands from Turkey since March 20 face being sent back, although the accord calls for each case to be examined individually.
And for every Syrian refugee returned, another Syrian refugee will be resettled from Turkey to the EU, with numbers capped at 72,000.
“It was overestimated that in five days everything would begin, it was crazy. We told them many times in Brussels, we knew,” Xydakis said.
“Things must be done by the book, we cannot bundle people together, they have to be certified and checked,” the minister said.
Out of around 6,000 migrants who have arrived on the islands of Chios and Lesvos after the March 20 deadline, more than 2,300 have now applied for asylum.
And many others had previously complained of not having had access to the asylum procedure.
Critics of the March 18 deal include Amnesty International, which says Turkey is not a safe country for refugees - a charge Ankara rejects.
Pope Francis, who used his recent Easter address to criticise the "rejection" of refugees, is expected to visit the frontline Greek island of Lesvos next week.