Athens/Dikili (Turkey): Turkey and Germany said on Wednesday a deal between Ankara and the EU meant to stem the flow of migrants to the Greek islands was showing signs of success, but many were still trying to cross the sea and the route remained far from sealed off.
Three days after the accord came into force, new arrivals on the Greek islands from Turkey dropped to 68 in the 24 hours to Wednesday morning from 225 the previous day, data from the Greek migration ministry showed.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the decrease was a direct result of the deal with the European Union. A spokesman for the German government, which lobbied sceptical European partners to back the accord, also said things were moving in the right direction.
"It is functioning, and the (number of) illegal migrants is in decline," Davutoglu said during a visit to Helsinki.
Under the accord, migrants and refugees who cross the Aegean Sea illegally are sent back to Turkey. Since it was implemented on Monday, 202 people, mostly from Pakistan, have been returned. Greek and Turkish officials say more may be sent back this week.
But the number of illegal migrants arriving on the Greek islands fluctuates daily, and many are still trying to cross.
Turkish authorities detained several groups at sea shortly after dawn on Wednesday, including about 40 Iraqis, some of whom set sail in a small dinghy from a cove 20km (12 miles) south of the town of Dikili, a Reuters witness said.
Some people were left on the beach as the dinghy was too small to carry them all. They watched as the Turkish coastguard intercepted the vessel shortly after it set off.
"Greece does not want to host us. Turkey is not allowing us. Where should we go? We drown in the sea with our children, that's it," said one Iraqi, declining to give his name.
Around 15 Pakistani migrants were also intercepted and taken to the town of Dikili, where a reception centre has been set up.
On a road outside Dikili, nine Syrian Palestinians, their belongings in rubbish bags over their backs, were trying to find transport after abandoning efforts to cross the sea, deciding the groups they planned to join were too big and the boats too small.
They had fled the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk on the edge of the Syrian capital Damascus. Some still wanted to make the crossing, but others now hoped to be settled in a refugee camp in Turkey.
"This agreement is not about Syrians or Palestinians. Where can we go if we go back to our land?" one said of the EU-Turkey deal, declining to give her name.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR said Turkey had increased security on its shorelines but it was too early to say whether the EU-Turkey deal was having an effect.
"The conditions forcing these people to move, including onwards to Europe, are still present and many people are falling through the cracks," Boris Cheshirkov, a UNHCR spokesman on the Greek island of Lesbos, said.
Under the accord, the EU will take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and reward it with financial aid, visa-free travel and progress in its EU membership negotiations.
Human rights campaigners have challenged the legality of the deal, questioning whether Turkey has sufficient safeguards in place to qualify as a safe country for refugees.
European officials say it is essential for Turkey to adopt tighter regulation on protection for Syrians, according to people familiar with an internal European Commission report.
A Turkish official said the regulation had been agreed by the cabinet and sent to President Tayyip Erdogan's office late on Tuesday, where it was awaiting approval.
Non-Syrians returned from Greece are being taken to a centre in the Turkish town of Kirklareli near the Bulgarian border, from where they are expected to be deported.
Returned Syrians are expected to be taken initially to a camp in the southern town of Osmaniye. Those with the means will be allowed to settle elsewhere in Turkey among an existing Syrian migrant population of 2.8 million, officials say.
Greece has reported a spike in the number of asylum applications of individuals who have arrived since March 20, the date the first phase of the EU accord took effect and new arrivals were detained in holding centres.
There have been protests in the Moria camp on Lesbos. A Pakistani migrant threatened to hang himself from a utility pole during a demonstration there on Wednesday.
According to official data, about 50,000 refugees and migrants are stranded on the Greek mainland after border closures in February sealed off a Balkan route used by thousands to reach western Europe in the past year.
At Piraeus, close to Athens, tensions boiled over after government officials urged hundreds camped in tents to leave. Migrants sat on the quayside refusing to move, while one man charged at police holding an infant, a Reuters witness said.