Greece accuses Turkey of failing to rescue illegal migrants after dinghy sinks

(Photo by ARIS MESSINIS / AFP)

Turkey failed to rescue illegal migrants in a dinghy that sank inside its territorial waters, Greece’s Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said in a speech to parliament, claiming that the Greek coast guard had to enter Turkish territorial waters to save the people on board the boat.

A search and rescue operation was underway Friday near the Greek island of Lesbos along the maritime border with Turkey, after an inflatable dinghy carrying migrants apparently sank, The Associated Press reported on Friday, citing the Greek authorities.

Ten people had been rescued and another three were believed to be missing, Greece’s coast guard said.

Two coast guard patrol boats, a vessel from the European border agency Frontex, one helicopter and two aircraft, as well as a vessel that had been sailing nearby, were involved in the search operation, the coast guard said. Turkey’s coast guard had also been informed of the incident.

According to the Greek coast guard, the dinghy appeared to have sunk inside Turkish territorial waters, with initially one survivor swimming into Greek territorial waters and being picked up by Greek authorities. Another nine people were then rescued from Turkish territorial waters, they said.

Survivors told authorities there had been a total of 13 people on the dinghy when it sank. Their nationalities weren’t immediately available.

Greece has for years been one of the most popular entry points into the European Union for people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The vast majority attempt to reach Greek islands near the Turkish coast, often in dangerously overcrowded inflatable dinghies and unseaworthy boats.

Mitarachi stressed that Greece was protecting its borders and that entries by migrants heading from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands were 96 percent lower in the last 12 months compared with the previous 12-month period.

Rights groups and migrants have repeatedly accused Greece of carrying out illegal summary deportations of people who arrive on the islands without giving them the chance to apply for asylum.

“It is clear that multiple arms of the Greek authorities are closely coordinating to brutally apprehend and detain people who are seeking safety in Greece, subjecting many to violence, then transferring them to the banks of the Evros River before summarily returning them to Turkey,” Adriana Tidona, migration researcher for Europe at Amnesty International, said in June. “Our research shows that violent pushbacks have become the de facto Greek border control policy in the Evros region. The level of organization needed to execute these returns, which affected around 1000 people in the incidents we documented, some numerous times and sometimes via unofficial detention sites, shows just how far Greece is going to illegally return people and cover it up.”

Greek authorities vehemently deny they carry out pushbacks, but do say they robustly patrol the borders.

“The government’s policy is clear. We do not want to be the gateway for smuggling networks into the European Union,” Mitarachi said. “We have denied hundreds of millions of euros from the smugglers of human pain, who operate to the east of our country. Our country has land and sea borders.”

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