ATHENS – Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis said Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu’s allegation that 19 migrants who froze to death near the border between the countries were pushed back by Greek guards who made them take off their clothing and shoes was not true.
Soylu made the claim after authorities discovered the bodies near the Ipsala border crossing on Feb. 2, tweeting that the victims were part of a larger group of 22 migrants who were stripped of their shoes and clothing by Greek border security. He did not specify the nationality of the migrants, nor give more details but showed blurred photographs of eight of the recovered bodies, including three in shorts and T-shirts, media reports said, from Kathimerini, Reuters and the Associated Press.
Greece has strongly rejected the accusation as it has allegations earlier from a number of groups about unlawful pushbacks on its land border and the sea to Turkey’s coast.
The Governor’s office for Edirne province, near the land border with Greece, said the deceased included a migrant who died in a hospital after rescued by Turkish authorities, no information from where they had first come.
A statement said that after 12 bodies were first found that another seven were later discovered there. The state-run Anadolu Agency said gendarmerie forces were searching the area with the help of drones and that medical teams were on standby.
Soylu accused Greek border units of acting as “thugs” toward migrants while showing sympathy toward members of a network – which Turkey says is behind a 2016 failed military coup – who have escaped to Greece.
He also accused the European Union of being “helpless, weak and inhumane.”
Greece has denied Turkish claims its forces push migrants back into Turkey, or sink migrant boats at sea.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has also insisted that the claims of pushbacks made by Turkey, human rights and activists groups, NGO’s and major media were all false and that none of it happened, despite apparent video evidence.
“These migrants never made it to the border,” said Mitarakis, suggesting they died in Turkey without getting across. “Any suggestion that they did, or indeed were pushed back into Turkey, is utter nonsense,” he said.
Under the terms of an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union, Turkey is supposed to contain some 4.4 million refugees and migrants who went there fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands, primarily Syria and Afghanistan.
CROSSING POINTS, SWORDS
Mitarakis accused Turkey of failing to prevent migrants from approaching the border area and undertaking “these dangerous journeys.”
“Instead of accusing others, Turkey should assume its responsibilities if we want to prevent such tragedies from occurring again,” he said.
He described the deaths as a “tragedy” but denied the claims Greek forces had pushed back the migrants, insisting that the migrants never made it to the border.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it was “horrified” by the reported deaths. “Mounting reports of pushbacks against people on the move at some European borders and many parts of the world are extremely concerning and should be investigated and action taken,” said IOM spokesperson Safa Msehli.
“We reiterate that such practices are prohibited under International Law and should not happen under any circumstances,” she said. “The obligation and primacy of saving lives and prioritizing the well-being and human rights of migrants are vital to the integrity of any border.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to expose what he said was Greece’s illegal pushback of migrants at every occasion without mentioning that in February, 2020 he sent 10,000 of them to the border along the Evros River.
He urged them to try to cross into Greece but they were repelled by riot police units and military teams but not before trying go breach the border by land and at points along the treacherous river which has claimed many migrant’s lives.
Turkey is a major crossing point for migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa seeking a better life in European Union countries before the borders were closed to them, dumping the problem largely on Greece during an economic crisis.
Most try to cross into Greece – a key gateway to the EU for people fleeing war or poverty – by either crossing the northeastern land border or cramming into smuggling boats headed for the five Aegean Sea islands holding almost 13,000.
Erdogan told reporters that he would bring up the issue of the alleged ill-treatment of migrants by Greece during every meeting he holds with world leaders.
He also accused the European Union of not speaking out against illegal pushbacks of migrants and the EU’s border and coast guard agency, Frontex, of allegedly “supporting” Greece.
“We will lead our struggle in front of the world,” he said. “We will continue to be on the side of the oppressed. We consider this to be our humanitarian and Islamic duty,” he added.
He didn’t mention that Turkey, in violation of an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU has allowed human traffickers to keep sending refugees and smugglers, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)