A group of migrants claim they were pushed back by Greek authorities in the Aegean Sea on September 12 and picked up by a Turkish patrol boat from two orange life rafts, The Associated Press reported.
According to the report, AP journalists on a Turkish government-organized coast guard ride-along were aboard the boat that picked up 37 Afghan migrants, including 18 children, in the open sea. Two other media organizations on similar government-organized trips in the same week witnessed similar scenes.
The migrants claim that shortly after reaching the Greek island of Lesbos they were rounded up, mistreated and shoved into life rafts and abandoned at sea. “They took our phones and said a bus would come and take us to the camp. Instead we were left at sea,” said Omid Hussain Nabizada (22).
The migrants claimed they were hit by the Greek authorities as they were forced onto the rafts. “They didn’t say, ‘There are children, there are families, there are women.’… People don’t treat animals like the Greek police treated us,” said Nabizada.
Another migrant on the boat, Zohra Alizada (14), claimed they called the Turkish coast guard for help. AP said they were not able to independently verify these accounts.
According to The New York Times, the Greek government has expelled more than 1,000 refugees from the country, taking them to the edge of Greek territorial waters and abandoning them in overcrowded inflatable rafts.
“Since March, at least 1,072 asylum seekers have been dropped at sea by Greek officials in at least 31 separate expulsions,” The Times said, citing an analysis of evidence from three independent watchdogs, two academic researchers and the Turkish Coast Guard.
Expulsion is illegal under international law, and this manner of attempting to block migrants from entering Europe is one of the most direct measures that have been taken so far, according to the Times. The Greek government, however, does not accept that there is any wrongdoing on their part.
Earlier this month Greece’s shipping minister Giannis Plakiotakis, said Greek authorities had prevented more than 10,000 people from entering Greece by sea this year. He would not elaborate on how.
Former Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas pressed the current minister, Notis Mitarachi, for details in parliament on September 21, saying this appeared to violate Greek and international law. He asked directly whether the government carries out pushbacks.
The UN refugee agency has repeatedly called on Greece to investigate what they say are credible reports and testimony of such expulsions occurring.
“UNHCR is particularly concerned about the increasing reports, since March 2020, of alleged informal returns by sea of persons who, according to their attestations or those of third persons, have disembarked on Greek shores and have thereafter been towed back to sea,” the agency said in August.
UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs, reiterating the call for an investigation, said that “with our own eyes on Lesbos, it was quite clear no boats were coming through” recently.
Watchdogs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Pro-Asyl have published reports that document several pushback cases. They add that these pushbacks have increased exponentially since April.
According to the Turkish coast guard, it has rescued over 300 migrants who were pushed back by Greek authorities to Turkish waters in September alone.
An independent Norwegian-based watchdog says it has documented at least 50 cases since March of migrants being put into life rafts and left adrift.
“They are not going into these life rafts willingly. They are forced,” said Tommy Olsen of the Aegean Boat Report, which monitors arrivals and rights abuses in the Aegean.
He said his group had no information about the rafts the AP saw but that it was consistent with similar reports.
“Usually you save people from life rafts,” Olsen said. “You don’t put them on life rafts and leave them.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in February threatened Europe with sending refugees living in Turkey to Europe. Shortly afterward he declared that the borders were open. In what appeared to be a government-organized campaign, thousands of migrants headed to the Greek border, leading to scenes of chaos. Greece shut its frontier and suspended asylum applications for a month.
The Greek coast guard claims that Turkey’s coast guard frequently escorts migrant-smuggling boats towards Greece and has provided AP with videos to back its claim. It says under a 2016 EU-Turkey deal to stem migration flows, Turkey must stop people from entering Greece.
The persistent allegations of pushbacks are the latest manifestation of the rising tensions between Turkey and Greece over eastern Mediterranean maritime boundaries. Both sides deployed warships as Turkish survey ships prospected for gas in waters where Greece and Cyprus claim exclusive economic rights. EU leaders are to discuss imposing sanctions on Turkey for its actions at a summit on October 1-2. Turkey has repeated its threat to send migrants to the EU if sanctions are imposed.