DIKILI, TURKEY – In a white van parked on a cliff looking out to sea, Turkish guards wait patiently for their scanner to detect migrant boats slipping across the water to Greece.
But fears of a sudden scramble to reach Europe ahead of new restrictions to curb the flow of migrants appeared to have been unfounded.
The small bay near the western town of Dikili being scanned by the coast guard in the early hours of Sunday was dark and eerily quiet, except for the steady hum of the rotating radar fixed to the van’s roof.
Nestled among gently sloping hills strewn with olive trees, the tranquil bays dotted along this stretch of the coast are a favorite destination among Turkish holidaymakers.
But in more recent times, the iridescent waters of the Aegean Sea have also lured many migrants and refugees hoping to reach the nearby Greek island of Lesbos.
With the promise of a better life in Europe just 10 km (6 miles) away, many migrants have lost their lives making the perilous crossing to Greece.
From Sunday, however, an EU-Turkey deal aims to shut down the route by sending any migrants arriving in Greece back to Turkey.
“Smugglers usually drop hundreds of them after midnight — Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis. Boats tend to set off between 0400 and 0800,” a local hotel worker told AFP late Saturday, pointing to a spot along a winding coastal road.
Nearly every night over the past year, men, women and children have used the cover of darkness to scramble into small inflatable boats and set off into an uncertain future.
On Friday, around 500 Syrians left from the beach being scanned by the radar van. Yet 24 hours later no one turned up.
A nearby dirt track showed traces of hasty departures: life jackets hanging in bushes, dozens of pumps to inflate rubber dinghies, nappies, children’s cough medicine, lost shoes, a green toy frog.
Farther south, another key departure spot, Cesme, was also calm in the hours before and after the migrant accord came into force.
Observers pointed to several factors that could explain the apparent absence of migrants trying to reach Greece.
Stepped-up Turkish patrols, which saw 1,734 migrants and 16 people smugglers en route to Lesbos arrested Friday, could have deterred other would-be travelers.
A further 210 people were captured in four dinghies bound for Lesbos early Saturday and brought back to Dikili, a coast guard member told AFP.
They were detained aboard the coast guard vessel for 36 hours before eventually being taken to a holding area at the port at midday on Sunday.
“We want to go! We don’t want to stay!” a group of migrants chanted as they stood pressed against the metal gates of the holding area.
“We were treated like animals on the big ship. They gave us no food or water,” a 19-year-old Syrian told AFP.
A bus later arrived to take some 50 migrants away to a nearby camp for fingerprinting, after which they were to be released.
A further explanation for the absence of migrants in traditional launching spots over the weekend could be that smugglers typically seek out new routes when old ones become blocked by the authorities.
Many migrants have also been unaware of the plan to clamp down on the influx into Europe, like a group of about 20 Afghans that AFP met near Cesme on Friday.
The group, which declined to be interviewed, was hiding in an unfinished building, waiting for darkness to fall before trying to sneak across to the Greek island of Chios.