Number of refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece on decline

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refugees reach out to get humanitarian aid at a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece, March 26, 2016 (Reuters Photo)
refugees reach out to get humanitarian aid at a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece, March 26, 2016 (Reuters Photo)

The flow of refugees from Turkey to Greece is slowing, Greek authorities said Saturday, as they also announced details of people being returned to Turkey.

In the space of 24 hours, only 78 people crossed from the Turkish coast to Greece's eastern Aegean islands, the Greek refugee crisis committee said. On Friday, 161 people had arrived.

The crisis committee estimates there are 50,200 migrants in Greece, with just over one-fifth of them staying at the Idomeni camp at the Macedonian border.

The return of refugees to Turkey is set to begin on April 4, according to an EU-Turkey agreement. The deal stipulates that any migrants that illegally entered Greece after March 20 can be returned to Turkey.

Athens is set to receive badly needed asylum experts, translators and security forces to help process migrants in the coming days. However, government sources say few of 2,300 helpers promised by the EU had arrived by Saturday.

Workers on the island of Lesbos have more than 2,600 cases yet to process, while 1,300 people are waiting on the island of Chios, the committee said. Meanwhile, 4,000 migrants have gathered at Piraeus, where Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said they are treating many with respiratory problems.

"The clock is ticking," an officer on Chios said Saturday. "How are we supposed to process hundreds, if not thousands, of asylum applications by April 4?"

The ministry responsible for migration issues said 71 migrants not covered by the EU deal had been returned to Turkey on Friday. Two were from Bangladesh and the rest from Pakistan.

Since the beginning of the year, 766 migrants from Pakistan, Morocco, Algeria, Bangladesh, Tunisia and elsewhere had been sent back to Turkey, the Greek ministry said.

On Thursday, Greece said no refugees had arrived on its Aegean islands in the previous 24 hours, for the first time since the EU-Turkey deal to halt the massive influx came into force at the weekend.

Greece and Turkey recently revived a 14-year-old bilateral deportation agreement.

Under the refugee deal, for every Syrian sent back, the EU will resettle one Syrian from Turkey, a country that is hosting nearly three million people who have fled the Syrian crisis.

The idea is to reduce the incentive for Syrian refugees to board dangerous smugglers' boats to cross to Greece, encouraging them instead to stay in Turkish refugee camps to win a chance at resettlement in Europe.

The EU will also speed up talks on Ankara's bid to join the 28-nation bloc, will double refugee aid to six billion euros ($6.8 billion), and give visa-free travel to Turks in Europe's Schengen passport-free zone by June.

The deal also plans major aid for Greece, a country now struggling not only with a debt crisis but with some 47,500 refugees stranded on its territory, thousands of them at the Macedonian border.

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