On February 2, Greece's minister of migration and asylum, Notis Mitarachi, denied accusations that his country had forced back refugees who later died of exposure.
Mitarachi’s comments came after 12 migrants froze to death in Turkey. Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu claimed the refugees had been stripped of their clothes and shoes before being expelled from Greece back into Turkey in freezing temperatures.
In response to Soylu, Mitarachi claimed the 12 refugees never crossed into Greece and accused Turkey of failing its obligation to avoid putting refugees in life-threatening situations.
“The deaths of 12 migrants on the Turkish border near Ipsala is a tragedy. Any suggestion that they were pushed back into Turkey is patently false,” Mitarachi tweeted.
That is misleading. According to human rights groups, journalists and refugees, Greece has in fact expelled refugees from its territory and put them into life-threatening conditions.
Athens denies these allegations, saying it’s simply protecting European Union borders.
On January 14, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), a network of 105 nongovernmental organizations in 39 EU countries, said the number of asylum-seekers pushed out of Greece doubled in 2021. ECRE added that local media reported an increase in patrols in the eastern Aegean Sea, forcing asylum seekers to take riskier routes.
Forbes also reported on January 8 that refugees are taking dangerous routes to reach Europe because of the tactics used by some EU states to discourage them from taking the safer traditional routes – from Turkey to the Greek islands and, to a lesser extent, from Turkey to Cyprus. As a consequence, Forbes said, more people died trying to reach Europe.
“The Greek police, under the authority of the anti-immigration New Democracy government, have repelled unprecedented numbers of people attempting to cross, a practice known as ‘pushbacks,’ often employing intimidation and violence,” Forbes reported.
According to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the number of refugees and migrants reaching the Greek islands decreased in 2021, with 4,109 people arriving to Greece from Turkey, compared to 9,714 in 2020 and 60,000 in 2019.
Meanwhile, 11,000 people reached Italy from Turkey. The U.N. said 30 people died along this route in December 2021.
On February 2, Germany’s Der Spiegel reported the story of Parvin A., a 30-year-old Iranian woman currently living in Germany, who said Greek police pushed her back six times before she made it to Germany on her seventh attempt.
She said that her first pushback was in February 2020, when Greek border guards arrested her after she crossed into Greece from Turkey along with 13 other refugees.
Parvin A. claimed the border guards confiscated her backpack with 1,000 euros in savings, and made her hand over her winter jacket and power bank. She hid her cell phone in her bra and shoes, and later used it to document the conditions under which she was held.
Data from Parvin A.’s phone revealed that she was taken to the Greek village of Neo Chimonio and treated inhumanly. She said men wearing military uniforms and balaclavas then took her back to the Turkish border in a truck.
“She says that one grabbed her by the neck and threatened to kill her if she ever came back. Then, she says, the men drove her back to the Turkish side of the river in an inflatable dinghy,” Der Spiegel reported.
In October 2021, Lighthouse Report, an Amsterdam-based investigative news organization, said it obtained videos as well as interviews with former police, coast guard officers and witnesses detailing violent pushbacks carried out by masked shadow armies on land and sea in Greece and the Balkans.
The group said it obtained 365 videos of alleged pushbacks in Greece.
“Reports have emerged of physical assaults, illegal pushbacks, reckless endangerment and rights abuses of asylum seekers and migrants. But the masked men operate in a gray zone of deniability, which considerable efforts by activists and other civil society actors have only been able to partially penetrate,” Lighthouse Report said.
In November 2021, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that Greece tried to push back a cargo ship carrying 382 migrants. The ship, the Turkish-flagged Murat 729, was heading to Italy when its engine broke down off Crete, and the vessel sent out a mayday call to Greece’s Hellenic Coast Guard.
The Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian monitoring group, told the Guardian local authorities denied knowing the vessel’s location, adding that the ship was subsequently towed in the sea for three days before passengers were allowed to disembark on the island of Kos.
“From 2pm on Thursday until the early hours of Sunday, when the passengers were permitted to disembark, it travelled 500km [300 miles]. All that time people were sending messages that they weren’t even being given water and that some were very sick,” said Tommy Olsen, founder of the Aegean Boat Report.
In July 2021, The New York Times reported that after 20 refugees from Afghanistan reached the Greek island of Lesbos, the police confiscated their belongings and cell phones, after which they were ferried back to sea and drifted in the dark for four hours before being rescued by the Turkish coast guard.
The newspaper interviewed some in a group of 18 African and Middle Eastern refugees who were rescued from a makeshift boat floating in Turkish waters. A refugee from Yemen, Muhammad Nasir, 29, told the Times the Greek coast guard had pushed him back seven times.
“Greece is even removing asylum seekers who have reached its islands, forcing them into life rafts and towing them into Turkish waters,” the Times reported.
In 2015, more than a million refugees crossed into Europe, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In response to the influx of refugees Europe changed its asylum policies and took measures to repel refugees from reaching EU territory. Rights groups blasted the changes.
Those measures included money for Greece to build border walls. The EU also paid Turkey 6 billion euros to keep migrants on Turkish soil.