BRUSSELS (AP) - The number of migrants arriving in Greece has plummeted thanks in part to the European Union’s pact with Turkey, the EU border agency said Friday, amid signs that the widely-criticized agreement to stop people heading to Europe could unravel.
The Frontex border agency said fewer than 2,700 people had entered Greece in April, a 90 percent drop from the previous month. It attributed the decline to the effect of the EU-Turkey deal and tight border controls at the Greek Macedonia border, which has been shut to migrants since early March.
“The drop in the number of arrivals on the Greek islands was dramatic,” Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri said, adding that April’s total was well below the daily figure arriving on the island of Lesbos alone during the peak months last year.
Officials say the agreement for Turkey to stop migrants heading to European shores and take back thousands who have arrived since March 20 is working, but the government in Ankara is opposing an EU demand that Turkey’s anti-terror law be modified.
The demand is part of EU requirements to secure visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens. The visa waiver is an incentive - along with up to 6 billion euros ($6.8 billion) and fast-track EU membership talks - for Turkey to stop migrants reaching Europe and take back thousands more.
But given the recent spate of suicide attacks, Turkey refuses to change the law.
“If there is a difficulty in this particular element then perhaps all of the elements of the package we have discussed and decided in the last months will be at stake,” Turkish European Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir said Thursday.
The aim of the deal, agreed on in March, was to stop the flow of hundreds of thousands of people from Turkey to nearby Greek islands, which had become by far the most popular route for refugees and migrants into Europe.
Under the agreement, those arriving on Greek islands on or after March 20 faced deportation back to Turkey unless they successfully applied for asylum in Greece - something the vast majority are reluctant to do in a financially stricken country where about a quarter of the workforce is unemployed.
On Friday, 118 people reached the islands of Chios and Kos, Greek government figures showed.
The EU-Turkey deal and Balkan land border closures have left more than 54,700 people stranded in Greece, with the country scrambling to build enough refugee camps to house them all. More than 9,300 remain at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, in a makeshift unofficial camp, with most living in small donated tents pitched in fields and along railway tracks.
According to Frontex, most new arrivals on the Greek islands were from Syria, with far fewer numbers from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The agency said the number of migrants along the Balkans route from Greece north toward preferred destinations in Austria, Germany and Scandinavia had also dropped as a result of the border closures.
It also said that the number of people entering Italy from across the Mediterranean surpassed those arriving in Greece for the first time in almost a year.
Officials have been keeping a watchful eye on smugglers’ boats traveling toward Italy to see if there has been a shift in routes since the closure of the Balkans route. International Organization for Migration spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo said Friday that so far there has been no impact on Italy.
The Italian Coast Guard said some 800 migrants rescued Thursday and 231 rescued Wednesday were brought to four Sicilian ports. They were initially reported by the Coast Guard to be mostly Syrians, but Di Giacomo said the first group arriving at Augusta included Egyptians, Somalis, Sudanese and just one Syrian, and that a ship heading to Catania was transporting mostly Eritreans and Somalis.
A pregnant Somali woman was evacuated separately by helicopter to a hospital in Catania. The two boats loaded with 515 and 286 migrants that were rescued on Thursday had departed Egypt, which Di Giacomo said indicated that the long route from Egypt was opening earlier than usual.
Arrivals this year are on pace with last year. According to IOM data, 27,926 migrants had arrived in Italy through April this year, compared with 26,221 in the same period last year. Just 26 were Syrians.
Meanwhile, German lawmakers have approved a plan to declare Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia “safe countries of origin,” a move aimed at making it easier to send migrants from the three North African nations home quickly and deter others from coming.
It still requires approval from the upper house.
Germany last year declared several Balkan nations whose citizens are barely ever granted asylum safe countries. That effectively reverses the burden of proof, with a country assumed to be safe unless an asylum applicant can prove persecution in his or her case.
Germany registered nearly 1.1 million people as asylum-seekers in 2015 and is keen to see far lower numbers this year.
Elena Becatoros from Athens, Suzan Fraser from Ankara, Turkey, Colleen Barry from Rome, Italy and Geir Moulson from Berlin contributed.
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