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'Dramatic' drop in migrant arrivals to Greece: officials

The EU border agency says the number of migrants plummeted nearly 90 percent in April. For the first time in almost a year, Italy overtook Greece in terms of numbers, but there too, arrivals have dropped significantly.

Fewer than 2,700 migrants entered Greece in April, down 90 percent on the month before, the Frontex border agency said on Friday.

Slightly different figures presented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) this week also indicated a dramatic downward trend. It said 3,360 migrants and refugees had landed on the Greek islands last month, compared with 26,971 in March - an 88 percent drop.

Frontex described the development as "dramatic."

"The total for all of April is well below the number of people we often saw reaching just the island of Lesbos on a daily basis during last year's peak months," Frontex Executive Director Frabrice Leggeri said in a statement.

Frontex attributed the decline to a widely criticized agreement between the European Union and Turkey to stop people heading to Europe from Turkish soil, and to tight border controls

imposed by the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

at its border with Greece, which has been shut to migrants since early March.

The agency said most of the migrants coming to the Greek islands were Syrians, followed by people from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Italy takes the lead

However, for the first time since June 2015, Italy saw more migrant arrivals than Greece in April, with 9,149 people arriving on its shores, according to the IOM. But even that number represents a 13-percent drop compared with March figures - and a fall of nearly 50 percent compared with April 2015.

Frontex said, however, that there were "no new signs of a significant shift of migrants" from the eastern to the central Mediterranean route, amid speculation that the virtual closure of the route to Greece would push people fleeing the civil war in Syria to start traveling to Italy via North Africa.

It said most of the migrants taking the route to Italy came from Eritrea, Egypt and Nigeria.

Deal in jeopardy?

As indications grow that the EU-Turkey migrant deal is starting to take dramatic effect after entering into force in late March, signs are also increasing that it could easily unravel amid

differences between Ankara and Brussels.

The Turkish government is opposing an EU demand to modify its anti-terror law, one of the key requirements under the deal in exchange for visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens.

Turkey is refusing to change the law in light of a

recent spate of terror attacks.

Turkish European Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir on Thursday called the entire deal into question if the EU did not withdraw its demand.

"If there is a difficulty in this particular element, then perhaps all of the elements of the package we have discussed and decided in the last months will be at stake," he said.

Under the agreement, those arriving on Greek islands on or after March 20 have faced deportation back to Turkey unless they have successfully applied for asylum in Greece. Most of the migrants are unwilling to do so in view of the lack of employment chances in that country, which has a jobless rate of around 25 percent.

The deal has been criticized strongly by human rights groups, which see it as violating the right to asylum enshrined in international law.

tj/kms ( AP, dpa, AFP)

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