DIKILI, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkish authorities intercepted hundreds of migrants trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos on Friday, in a major operation involving coastguard ships and helicopters, as European leaders clinched an agreement with Ankara to halt illegal migration.
Around 1,200 migrants, many detained at sea and the others in hostels and streets on Turkey’s Aegean coast, were being taken to a sports hall in the town of Dikili, a senior local security official told Reuters.
The migrants, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, would be questioned to determine their backgrounds and what action would be taken next, officials said.
“I think there are many people running from war to Europe, and I guess it’s a (problem),” said Issam Katib, 27, who fled from Damascus and was among those detained.
He reflected a widely held view among the migrants that if they could reach the Greek islands they would then be free to settle in Europe.
“If Turkey gives us the right to choose the country to live in, it is ok, but I think ... in Greece we have the right to choose,” he told Reuters, speaking in English. “We all need (to go) a legal way, maybe not by the sea.”
In Brussels, European Union leaders approved a controversial deal with Turkey intended to halt illegal migration to Europe in return for financial and political rewards for Ankara.
The accord aims to close the main route a million people used to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece before marching north to Germany and Sweden in the last year. But deep doubts remain about whether it is legal or workable.
Turkey is home to more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees alone, and for many, the attraction of Europe is unlikely to diminish once the agreement takes effect. People traffickers are likely to focus on new routes, officials fear.
“We left Syria and came to Turkey, but life here is expensive and difficult ... We want to go to Europe and for someone to help us a little,” said Qasser Shaouk, a migrant in the Basmane district of Izmir, the main city on Turkey’s Aegean coast.
Editing by Larry King