Repeating allegations also asserted by human rights groups – denied by Greek officials – Turkey said Greek authorities are continuing to push back to sea vessels filled with refugees and migrants Turkey allows human traffickers to keep sending to Greek islands.
While activists said Greece is violating international laws, Turkey has repeatedly violated an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union requiring that country hold refugees and migrants who went there fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands.
At the same time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan keeps warning he will flood the EU with more – through Greece and its islands – which has worked teo get bloc officials to pledge sending him another 3 billion euros ($3.53 billion) aimed at containing them in Turkey.
In a feature, the New York Times said that refugees and migrants, including children on rickety craft and rubber dinghies, were being pushed back to sea by Greece's Coast Guard although the New Democracy government said that hasn't happened.
The newspaper said they were rescued by Turkey's Coast Guard, which has looked the other way as they were sent toward Greece, the two countries battling over responsibilities for them and with Turkey refusing to take back many denied asylum as required under the swap deal.
In one case, said the paper, there were 20 asylum seekers from Afghanistan who had been drifting in the dark, abandoned in rudderless rafts for four hours before the Turkish Coast Guard reached them.
The report said they had been in a forest on the Greek island of Lesbos, the biggest of five islands holding most of the more than 30,000 still on them in detention centers as thousands have been sent to the mainland.
They were caught by Greek police officers who confiscated their documents, money and cellphones and ferried them out to sea, the paper said.
“They kicked us all, with their feet, even the children, women, men and everyone,” said Ashraf Salih, 21, “They did not say anything, they just left us. They weren’t humane at all.”
Turkish Coast Guard officials said it happens regularly without indicating they they aren't doing more to stop them from reaching Greece as is required, the refugees and migrants pawns in a political battle as well.
Some one million refugees and migrants began arriving in 2015 as Syria's civil war escalated, many reaching other EU countries before the bloc closed its doors to them, dumping the problem largely on Greece during a long-running economic and austerity crisis.
While the 2016 swap deal – as well as the COVID-19 pandemic that broke out in 2020 – have worked to greatly slow the number of arrivals, they are still coming and in February, 2020, Erdogan bused 10,000 of them to the land border along the Evros River.
He encouraged them to try to cross but they were stymied by Greek riot police and army units, and then COVID hit.
The Times acknowledged that “Turkey has turned a blind eye to the migrants, allowing them to try the sea crossing to Greece,” but added that Greece: “has resorted to expelling migrants forcibly, disabling their boats and pushing them back to Turkey when they are caught at sea,” putting most blame on Greece.
NO HANDS ACROSS THE WATER
The report also claimed that Greece is expelling asylum seekers who have made it to land, forcing them into life rafts and towing them into Turkish waters, weary of years of arrivals, showing compassion fatigue.
The so-called pushbacks are unlawful under EU law and have been bitterly criticized by refugee organizations and EU oficials as a violation of international law and of alleged fundamental European values.
“Numerous cases have been investigated, including by the European Union and reports have found no evidence of any breach of E.U. fundamental rights,” Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, said earlier.
The EU's own border patrol FRONTEX was investigated by the European Parliament over complaints from critics it had aided Greece in sending the refugees and migrants back out to sea to fend for themselves.
Philippe Leclerc, head of the United Nations refugee agency in Turkey, said his office had presented evidence, including “accounts of violence and family separations” to the Greek ombudsman, requesting the cases be investigated, without result, the paper added.
Turkey demands end the pushbacks first, and Greece has demanded that Turkey first take back 1,400 migrants whose asylum requests have been rejected, Leclerc said, capturing them in a tug 'o war.
Greece is trying to deal with asylum requests from virtually all of the more than 100,000 refugees and migrants stuck in detention centers and camps, many more than two years and counting.
The report said Turkey's Coast Guard invited journalists to go on a patrol boat to witness what it said were Greek violations, although it wasn't said if the reporters were allowed to see human traffickers sending them from Turkey's coast.
“It is obvious they were pushed back,” Senior Lt. Cmdr. Sadun Ozdemir, the Northern Aegean group commander of the Turkish Coast Guard, said after his crew had rescued the 20 Afghans. “They did not come from the sky.”
Indeed, they had come from Turkey, which was supposed to keep them and prevent them from leaving there to get to Greece's islands.
He said the Greek vessel had probably towed the rafts deep into Turkish territorial waters before cutting them adrift, which he said was an additional violation, offering no other proof.
One raft was overloaded and the thin bottom leaking, he said. “That boat could have sunk in one or two minutes, and possibly they do not know how to swim and they could have drowned,” he said.
The Turkish crew received an email from their Greek counterparts that migrants were drifting in the area in what was said to be an apparent move to deflect responsibility if there were a loss of life.
Tommy Olsen, who runs the Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian nonprofit that tracks arrivals of migrants on the Greek islands, said he had photographs and electronic data proving the migrants and refugees had made it to Lesbos, where islands had been acclaimed in the early days of the crisis for welcoming them.
Commercial ships as well as navy and coast guard vessels pass through the northern Aegean and could easily hit the small rafts and boats, which have no lights or means of navigation, added Ozdemir.
Interviews with migrants rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard in several incidents over the course of four nights revealed the scale of Greek violations and the growing desperation of migrants, report by Carlotta Gall said.
“This thing we call ‘pushback’ in English is a very innocent expression,” said Ozdemir. But the action was anything but, he said, hoping to convey “how desperate the situation is,” Turkey not taking any blame or responsibility.