ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Five Afghans, including two children and a six-month old baby, drowned in the Aegean overnight trying to reach Greece as Turkey starts to implement an EU agreement to curb illegal migration.
The stream of migrants risking perilous sea crossings has so far shown little sign of abating after Turkey reached the draft deal with the EU on Monday, under which it will try to stem the flow in return for funding and political rewards.
Turkey’s EU Minister Volkan Bozkir said the deal, under which Ankara agreed to take back all irregular migrants, does not apply to those who have already reached the Greek islands and that the number returned was ultimately expected to be in the thousands or tens of thousands.
The top U.N. rights official voiced concern the tentative deal may lead to “collective and arbitrary expulsions” illegal under international law, and urged the EU to adopt a more humane set of measures at a summit on March 17.
One of the victims from Wednesday night’s capsize, in which their boat hit rough weather as it travelled towards the Greek island of Lesbos, managed to swim ashore but died during attempts to revive him, a coastguard official told Reuters.
Of the four bodies found at sea, one was that of a six-month-old baby, rescuers said. Nine other people were pulled from the water alive.
“The rescue operation for the two others is continuing,” the coastguard official said. Initial reports suggested Iranians were also among the group, but the coastguard later confirmed this was not the case.
The European Union has offered Turkey billions of euros in aid to curb illegal migration. Under the draft deal struck on Monday, Turkey also received promises of faster visa liberalisation for Turks travelling to Europe, and a speeding up of Ankara’s long-stalled EU membership talks.
The aim is to discourage illegal migrants and break the grip of human smugglers who have sent them on treacherous journeys across the Aegean. But migrants have continued to try to cross from Turkey’s coast in recent days.
“Forming the mindset that ‘You can’t go there anymore, there’s no hope there’ is the basis of preventing (illegal migration),” Bozkir told the state-run Anadolu agency.
He also said Turkey would meet by May 1 the EU’s conditions for visa-free travel to Europe, seen by many Turks as the main benefit of the deal. EU leaders set requirements including changing Turkey’s visa policy towards Islamic states and introducing harder-to-fake biometric passports.
Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said Turkey was already making progress fighting people smuggling networks, telling broadcaster NTV that 2,000 people had been arrested. He did not give a timeframe.
“Turkey is conducting a very effective fight. As you know, we will make illegal migration a terrorism crime. Every day and everywhere our security forces are apprehending organisers of illegal migration,” he told NTV.
More than 130,000 people this year have reached Europe from Turkey, which borders Iran and conflict zones in Syria and Iraq, while 350 people have died on the perilous journey, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
More than 35,000 people are trapped at the Greek-Macedonian border at Idomeni as Europe tries to close the Balkan route to foreigners fleeing violence and economic upheaval.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul; Writing by Nick Tattersall, Editing by Angus MacSwan