In an early morning operation conducted under heavy security, the first deportations of migrants and asylum seekers from Greece to Turkey under the recent deal signed between the European Union and Ankara have taken place.
Two boats carrying 138 migrants - mostly Pakistani but including two Syrians - left the port of Mytilini on the island of Lesbos shortly after 7am. The operation began a short time before at a detention centre on the island, from where the deportees were transferred by five buses to the port.
From the nearby island of Chios, where a number of detained migrants walked out of a detention centre at the weekend, 66 migrants were deported.
A spokesperson for the EU border agency Frontex, which conduced the deportations, said most of those sent back were from Pakistan, with some from Bangladesh and Morocco.
"All the deportees were issued with return decisions by the Greek authorities. We are only involved at the end of the process," Ewa Moncure said.
Asked if the deportees were aware of their rights to claim asylum, she said that was a matter for the Greek authorities.
“No one can be returned without a decision being issued,” she said.
The deportees from Lesbos, which included two Syrian nationals, were taken to Dikili on the Turkish coast.
The Syrians had voluntarily requested to be returned, according to Major General Zacharoula Tsirigioti, head of the Greek aliens and border protection unit, who spoke to journalists at Mytilini.
The deportations passed without major incident. Returnees were not handcuffed and were each paired with a Frontex officer on the short journey to Turkey. The police escorts were drawn from law enforcement agencies from France, Estonia, Latvia, Denmark, Lithuania and Luxembourg.
Two Turkish vessels, the Nazli Jale and Lesvos, were chartered for the short crossing. Turkish officials were also present in Lesbos to check the names of those on the deportation lists.
A spokesperson for the UN refugee agency said it had spoken to the deportees beforehand and explained their rights to them.
"UNHCR had full access and held information sessions with returned population explaining rights and procedures to seek asylum," Melissa Fleming said.
However, the deportation operation was criticised by human rights groups as lacking transparency.
"It was not transparent. No one has informed human rights organisations on how these people were processed and whether they received a fair process. Mass returns are illegal and this is the reason it happened in a hush-hush manner," said Wenzel Michalski, Germany director of Human Rights Watch.
He said most of the deportees have little or no rights in Turkey as it has not signed relevant appendixes to the Geneva convention extending refugee status to non-Europeans.
“Only the Syrians will get some form of protection but this is minimal. The others will get nothing.”
The deportations were accompanied by protests from activists at the port who held up a banner which said: “Ferries for safe passage: No to deportations.”
One Dutch volunteer, Adrienne De Ruiter, said: "The EU has made a deal overnight with Turkey without consulting the people of Europe. This deal undermines many principles that Europe is supposed to stand for.
“There is all this talk about migrants being illegal, but this deal is illegal. There is no legal nor moral ground to send them back.”