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Refugee boats continued to arrive in Greece in the eastern Mediterranean, despite a recent deal between the EU and Turkey – whereby refugees will be deported back to Turkey – coming into effect.
At least five boats, carrying more than 30 refugees each, arrived from Turkey between Saturday midnight – when the agreement came into force – and Sunday morning.
We endured four years of war, bombardment, rocket attacks…I don’t want to be sent back to Turkey because my father and two sisters are in Germany and I miss them.
The majority of the refugees who arrived were from Syria, Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from the Greek island of Lesbos, said.
Under the deal struck on Saturday, for every Syrian returned, the EU will resettle one from a Turkish refugee camp.
But people who managed to reach Europe’s shores were hopeful they would not be turned back.
“I don’t think they will reject us because we are coming from a destroyed city. We are asking for asylum on humanitarian grounds,” Ahmed, a refugee from Aleppo, told Al Jazeera upon his arrival in Lesbos.
“Not only is there war in our country but the situation in Turkey is bad for us.”
Those who arrived in Greece want to make their way to mainland Europe, some in search for a better life and others to be reunited with their family members who made the journey before them.
“We endured four years of war, bombardment, rocket attacks … I don’t want to be sent back to Turkey because my father and two sisters are in Germany and I miss them,” Rola Hallak, another refugee from Aleppo, said.
The EU-Turkey deal aims to strangle the main route used by refugees travelling to the EU and discourage people smugglers, but it has faced criticism from rights groups and thousands took to the streets of Europe in protest.
Greek premier Alexis Tsipras told his ministers on Saturday afternoon to be ready to begin deporting people the following day, as agreed, but officials said afterwards they needed more time to prepare.
“The agreement to send back new arrivals on the islands should, according to the text, enter into force on March 20,” the government coordinator for migration policy (migration coordination agency) spokesman Giorgos Kyritsis told the AFP news agency.
“But a plan like this cannot be put in place in only 24 hours.”
Around 1,500 people crossed the Aegean to Greece’s islands on Friday before the deal was brought in, officials said – more than double the day before and compared with several hundred a day earlier this week.
A four-month-old baby drowned when a refugee boat sank off the Turkish coast on Saturday hours before the deal came into force, Turkey’s Anatolia agency reported.
Hundreds of security and legal experts – 2,300 according to Tsipras – are set to arrive in Greece to help enforce the deal, described as “Herculean” by European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.
Paris and Berlin have pledged to send 600 police and asylum experts to Greece, according to a joint letter.
Amnesty International has called the deal a “historic blow to human rights,” and on Saturday thousands of people marched in London, Athens, Barcelona, Vienna, Amsterdam and several Swiss cities in opposition.
“We’re calling on the Greek government to stop aligning itself with the EU’s anti-refugee policies,” said activist Thanassis Kourkoulas at a rally in the Greek capital.
EU officials have stressed that each application for asylum will be treated individually, with full rights of appeal and proper oversight.
In return for cooperation, Turkey won an acceleration of its long-stalled bid for EU membership, a doubling of refugee aid to six billion euros ($6.8bn) and visa-free travel in Europe’s Schengen passport-free zone.
The deal also envisages major aid for Greece, where tens of thousands of refugees are trapped in dire conditions after Balkan countries shut their borders.