EDIRNE, Turkey – It was a cold night, with heavy rain and strong northerly winds, as Greek border guards pushed 50 migrants back into the river that marks the border with Turkey.
Jaber Jang Singh, 33, a farm worker from India, said: “It was terrible. “Given the weather, they shouldn’t have done it. This causes us to die. “
Nineteen people died that night, unable to take shelter in the flooded rice fields on the Turkish side. They were found two days later, huddled against a low cement wall and lying on the edge of a muddy road. Before pushing the people back, the Greek officers stripped their coats, sweaters and shoes.
Four survivors recounted the episode in interviews with The New York Times at a Turkish government center for migrants in the provincial city of Edirne. Their accounts match recent statements from the Turkish government, which accuse Greek authorities of carrying out illegal pushback practices under international law.
Greece’s Immigration Minister, Notis Mitarachi, at the time said the deaths were a tragedy, but he denied that the people had ever been in Greece.
“These migrants never made it to the border,” he said in a statement. “Any offer they’ve made, or indeed have been pushed back to Turkey, is complete nonsense.” His spokesman declined to comment further this week.
The number that occurred on the night of February 1 was the highest of any single incident detected in two years since Turkish authorities and human rights groups said Greece had embarked on a tough campaign under conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to turn his back. migrants are trying to reach Europe, whether by land or by sea.
Not long ago, Greece took in hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, at the height of the 2015 migration crisis, when more than a million asylum seekers flooded into Europe. Although the flow has now diminished significantly, the Greeks have become so exhausted and bitter that, as a frontline nation, they have to bear the burden of dealing with larger asylum seekers. their EU partners.
The Greek Coast Guard is accused of placing migrants on top of flimsy rafts, which sometimes leads to drowning before the defense is stopped by Turkish patrols.
At least three people have died in the Aegean Sea since last September, victims of nearly 540 informal profiteering cases reported by Greece since the start of 2020, Filippo Grandi, head of the UN refugee agency, said in a statement second release.
The tactics are the same along Greece’s land border, which has for decades been a major crossing point and throwback footage of migrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. to Europe.
The situation has worsened since 2020, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey announced the lifting of restrictive measures on migrants arriving in Greece and Greece increased border controls. The two countries are still at a standstill.
In a rare rebuke, Mr. Grandi in its statement warned that increased violence against migrants and refugees at Europe’s borders was leading to a loss of life and dismissed Greece for its “regular and consistent reports”. consistent” about violent reactions.
Mr. Mitarachi expressed surprise at Mr. Grandi’s comments in statement issued by its ministry, and said that Greece protects the external borders of the European Union in compliance with international law and human rights.
That is not what the four survivors described. They said they were detained inside Greece by uniformed Greek police, and held in makeshift camps for up to a day. Greek officers confiscated their belongings and stripped them of their outer clothing and drove them to the edge of the Evros River, which divides Greece and Turkey.
“They took my phone, wallet, passport, medal and bracelet, and my bus ticket,” Mr. Singh said. He was not even from Turkey, but entered Greece from Serbia and was traveling by bus to the capital Athens, when he was detained, but he was still pushed to Turkey.
At the river, they were asked to board a rubber dinghy in groups of eight to 10 and towed across the river by ropes and pulleys. Armed men in military uniforms and black tank tops supervised the operation.
Muhammad Saiful Islam, 22, an electrician from Bangladesh, who was detained for several hours after arriving in Greece, said: “It’s not good but there’s nothing we can do.
Barefoot, removing his hooded sweatshirt and jeans, he began a brisk walk in the pouring rain across the patchwork of rice paddies of the area, crisscrossed by canals and trees. the dirt road is hard to walk even in broad daylight.
Two other people from Bangladesh said they had crossed Greece the night before and were pushed back to Turkey in a group of about 40 men around 10pm. “I was scared and so tired of the rain and cold,” said Riaz, 27, a tailor. from Bangladesh who like many in his country uses only one name.
He said he recognized one of the dead men, after the photos were shared on social media. “We were going fast and maybe they were behind,” he said, “and those who stayed behind are dead.”
After two to three hours of walking and running, Mr Singh said his group reached a road and was picked up by Turkish police patrols, who gave them clothes, juice and cookies. “I was shivering and scared,” he said.
It wasn’t until morning that a farmer heard a cry and, looking across the flooded canal, saw a group of migrants huddled against the low wall of a water pump. By the time rescuers reached the floodwaters, the lone survivor was unable to speak and died shortly thereafter.
Five men were found next to the pump, and seven others a few miles north of flooded fields. Initial reports said 12 people had died. It took another day for rescuers to find the remains of 19 people.
One rescuer said their bodies turned purple and froze to the touch. Some people tried to take off their shirts and pants during the final agony of death, he said. He spoke on condition that his name not be released because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Philippe Leclerc, head of the United Nations refugee agency in Turkey, warned that tensions and lack of coordination between Greece and Turkey were increasingly endangering lives. He called on Greece and Turkey to investigate the incident, as did the Somali government, saying five of the dead men were nationals of the country.
“The first thing is to make sure there is management and cooperation on both sides to avoid loss of life – that is the first order,” he said. . ”
Among the migrants who have endured obstacles, there is little doubt as to who is to blame.
A group of Moroccan migrants camping in a derelict hotel on the outskirts of Ipsala, a town in the region where the deaths occurred, say the Greek border is the hardest to cross in the whole of Europe, despite though they said the Bulgarian border forces towards Turkey. border uses more violence.
Moroccans say they have tried to cross the border from Turkey to Greece several times in recent weeks and have been beaten and pushed back by Greek soldiers, each time after being stripped of money, documents and pants. Warm coat and shoes.
A 38-year-old man, identified only as Hassan, a firefighter from the city of Fez, said he had twice been pushed into the river and had to swim. He said he was a strong swimmer, helped some people cross the border, but many drowned.
He started off to France, where his three children were cared for by the government after their mother died. “We are not criminals,” he said. “We just want to work.”
The survivor, Mr. Riaz, was bitter about his treatment of the Greeks, and said that days after the freezing ordeal, he still had no feeling in his legs.
“We know we were there illegally, but the government is not illegal, so they shouldn’t be treating us illegally,” he said. “They treated us in an illegal way and because of that one of my friends died.”
Gokce Saracoglu contributed reporting from Edirne and Safak Timur from Istanbul. Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from Athens.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/24/world/europe/greece-turkey-migrants-deaths.html Migrants who survived at the Greek border say they were left to die