Facing an unprecedented flow of refugees from around the world fleeing from conflicts and poverty, Europe turned to Turkey for help. Turkey responded by approving a deal for the resettlement of migrants and a heightened clampdown on migrant smugglers, further relieving Europe of the burden of illegal migrants.
The latest figures show that Turkish law enforcement captured more than 1,500 smuggling suspects in 2015, that 400 suspects have been arrested so far in 2016 and that more than 65,000 migrants have been intercepted at sea and land by Turkish security forces since January. A deal for the resettlement of newly-arriving migrants from Europe to Turkey in exchange for the transfer of Syrian refugees from Turkish refugee camps to Europe has helped decrease the number of illegal dangerous crossings via the Aegean Sea, as Greek authorities have also indicated.
Since January, 52 suspected smugglers have been detained by the Coast Guard, while nearly 400 suspects were arrested in Turkey for organizing illegal trips to Europe for migrants from the Middle East and Asia. Along with Turkish smugglers, authorities say Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi, Uzbek and Ukrainian suspects are among those arrested for smuggling. While some of those smugglers are themselves migrants, attempting to cover the expenses of journeys to Europe, others are members of professional gangs that plan the journeys and operate in Turkey.
Turkey plans to establish a new state agency to focus on human smuggling. Due to its location, Turkey is a significant destination and transit country for migrants as well as human traffickers. Turkey plans to classify migrant smuggling as a terror crime, as that carries heavier sentences. Human smuggling currently carries a light sentence if no additional crimes are involved, such as trafficking, extortion, threat or manslaughter (of people smuggled aboard boats or in trucks). Under Turkish law, human smuggling is punishable by prison terms of up to eight years and fines, and if committed under the auspices of a smuggling gang, sentences are subject to an increase. Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş recently stated that other measures were also in the works to support the fight against smuggling and illegal migration, ranging from capacity-building for the Coast Guard - the task force at the forefront of efforts to intercept the migrants and the establishment of a police department specializing in human smuggling.
State-run Anadolu Agency (AA) reported that operations against illegal immigration focus on coastal cities along the Aegean and Mediterranean seas and cities bordering Greece and Bulgaria and that more migrants have been intercepted in land operations than captured while traveling by sea. Since Jan. 1, more than 22,000 migrants have been apprehended on the Aegean and Mediterranean, while gendarmerie troops and police have intercepted 42,500 migrants in land operations.
Çanakkale and İzmir, two cities on the Aegean, top the list of favorite destinations for migrants, while Edirne and Kırklareli, which border Greece and Bulgaria, are the most popular for those following a land route.
Turkey's active participation in curbing the migrant influx also resulted in a decline in the number of migrants traveling to Europe via the Aegean Sea.
Greek authorities say the influx of refugees into the country dwindled following the implementation of the agreement. They noted a significant drop in numbers since Monday's launch. Under the deal, Ankara will take back all those illegal migrants and refugees, including Syrians, who transit Turkey on their way to Greece, in return for the EU taking in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkish refugee camps. European Union Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told reporters that the implementation of the deal was still only beginning and the numbers were very low, but that he believed they would scale up in the course of time. "It is a good start," he said.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said the number of migrants illegal traveling to Greece declined to 350 a day after March 20, the deadline before the deal's implementation. He was speaking in Finland, one of the countries admitting refugees from Turkey under the deal. He said the drop in numbers was considerable, as it was "around 6,000 a day" in October 2015. "This is a success. The process is going very well," said Davutoğlu, although he acknowledged it was also a complicated process.
Only 68 people arrived on the Greek islands from Tuesday through Thursday, while 225 people arrived on Monday. A source in the Greek Coast Guard told DPA that migrants in Greece would not be returned to Turkey until Friday, while a large wave of asylum applications are being processed, leading to the delay. Asylum applications swelled after the agreement came into force. Greece was mainly a transit country for hundreds of thousands of migrants en route to other European countries, with Germany as a favored destination. Greek Aegean islands were the main routes for migrants travelling illegally from Turkey, as these islands are close to the Turkish coast, enabling fast travel by boat. However, this is also the most dangerous route as overcrowded dinghies and speedboats often succumb to rough sea conditions and sank. Hundreds were killed last year in drowning incidents.
Greek media reported that of the first group of 3,149 migrants returned to Turkey from the island of Lesbos, 95 percent have applied for asylum. Greek media outlets point out that those asylum applications may pose an obstacle for the EU-Turkey deal and hamper returns, as local agencies handling the applications are understaffed.
George Kyritsis, a government spokesman on the refugee crisis, told Greek TV that returns would resume later this week, and that they were acting "delicately" in the face of a complicated process. Kyritsis said that implementation of the deal was still possible and that Greece was determined to do its part while maintaining the rights of migrants and refugees. Greece has recently implemented a new law on asylum applications. Under the new law, the asylum application process takes only about nine days, speeding up the process. A faster process for asylum applications is also being mulled by the EU. The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, is planning new options for reforming asylum rules. Current rules on the continent stipulate that migrants in pursuit of asylum should first apply in the country where they arrive and should be returned to that country if they are intercepted in another country. This challenges cash-strapped Greece, which found itself overwhelmed with refugees, especially in 2015.
Turkey's Coast Guard in the western city of İzmir in Wednesday intercepted some 60 migrants, including Syrians, while the first batch of migrants, 202 people from 11 countries, were sent back on Monday by a ferry from Greece. Dozens of Syrian refugees from Turkish refugee camps were flown to Germany, the Netherlands and Finland on Monday and Tuesday as part of the deal.
Tamir Osman, an Iraqi illegal immigrant traveling with his three children and wife, were among the migrants apprehended by Turkey's Coast Guard. Speaking to AA, Osman, who hails from Fallujah, Iraq, said they left home due to the threat from DAESH. "We want to save our lives, we want to live in a country without war," he said. Hidir Hasari, a migrant from Lebanon who was similarly traveling with his wife, pleaded with Turkish authorities to let them go to Greece.