Migrants accuse Greece of pushing them back out to sea

GREECE/TURKEY (AP) – Shortly after reaching the Greek island of Lesbos, a group of Afghan migrants say, their hopes for a new life in Europe were cut short when Greek authorities rounded them up, mistreated them, shoved them into life rafts and abandoned them at sea.

Associated Press (AP) journalists on a Turkish government-organised coast guard ride-along were aboard the patrol boat that picked up the 37 migrants, including 18 children, from two orange life rafts in the Aegean Sea on September 12.

Two other media organisations on similar government-organised trips in the same week witnessed similar scenes.

“They took our phones and said a bus will come and take you to the camp,” Omid Hussain Nabizada said in Turkish. “But they took us and put us on a ship. They left us on the water in a very bad way on these boats.”

Turkey, which hosts about four million refugees, accuses Greece of large-scale pushbacks – summary deportations without access to asylum procedures, in violation of international law. It also accuses the European Union (EU) of turning a blind eye to what it says is a blatant abuse of human rights.

Turkish coast guard officers carry a woman off a life raft during a rescue operation in the Aegean Sea, between Turkey and Greece. PHOTO: AP

The Turkish coast guard said it rescued over 300 migrants “pushed back by Greek elements to Turkish waters” this month alone. Citing what they say are credible reports, international rights groups have called repeatedly for investigations. Greece, which lies on the EU’s southeastern border and has borne the brunt of migration flows from Turkey, denies the allegations and in turn accuses Ankara of weaponising migrants.

In March, Turkey made good on threats to send migrants to Europe, declaring its borders with the EU open. In what appeared to be a government-organised campaign, thousands headed to the Greek border, leading to scenes of chaos and violence.

Turkey’s border with EU member Bulgaria was largely unaffected. Greece shut its frontier and controversially suspended asylum applications for a month.

Greece’s coast guard said Turkey’s coast guard frequently escorts migrant smuggling boats toward Greece, and has provided videos to back its claims. It said under a 2016 EU-Turkey deal to stem migration flows, Turkey has an obligation to stop people clandestinely entering Greece.

Greek coast guard spokesman Lt Cmdr Nikolaos Kokkalas said its patrols regularly detect boats and dinghies carrying migrants trying to enter Greece illegally, and “among them many times there are also inflatable rafts such as those described” by the AP.

The life rafts are standard safety equipment on recreational boats, designed to keep passengers safe if they must abandon ship. They generally have no means of propulsion or steering.

“It must be underlined that in most of the cases, the presence of the Turkish coast guard has been observed-ascertained near the dinghies incoming from the Turkish coast, but without it intervening, while in some cases the dinghies are clearly being accompanied by (Turkish coast guard) vessels,” Kokkalas said in a written response to an AP query.

Uneasy neighbours Greece and Turkey have been at loggerheads for decades over several territorial issues, and asylum-seekers have found themselves caught up in the geopolitical conflict.

Tension between the two countries rose dramatically this summer over eastern Mediterranean maritime boundaries, leading to fears of war.

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, in an October 1-2 summit. Turkey has repeated its threat to send migrants into the EU if sanctions are imposed.

The persistent allegations of pushbacks of migrants are the latest manifestations of these tensions.