Survivors of Deadly Night at Greek Border Say They Were Left to Die

Survivors of Deadly Night at Greek Border Say They Were Left to Die

EDIRNE, Turkey — It was a cold night, lashing with rain and with a sharp north wind blowing, when Greek border forces pushed up to 50 migrants back across the river that marks the border with Turkey.“It was so bad,” said one, Jaber Jang Singh, 33, a farm laborer from India. “With the weather conditions they should not have done that. This was to leave us to die.”Nineteen did die that night, unable to reach shelter in the waterlogged rice fields on the Turkish side. They were found over the next two days, huddled against a low cement wall and collapsed on the edge of a muddy road. Before pushing the people back, Greek officers had stripped them of their jackets, 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 matched recent Turkish government statements, which accused the Greek authorities of conducting pushbacks illegal under international law.The Greek migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, said at the time that 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 suggestion they did, or indeed were pushed back into Turkey, is utter nonsense.” His spokesman declined to comment further this week.The toll on the night of Feb. 1 was the highest of any single incident yet discovered in the two years since the Turkish authorities and human rights groups say Greece has embarked on a hard-line campaign under the conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to turn away migrants trying to reach Europe, whether by land or by sea.Greece not long ago received hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, when more than one million asylum seekers surged into Europe. Though the flow is now vastly reduced, Greeks have grown exhausted and bitter that, as a frontline state, they have had to bear a greater burden of dealing with the asylum seekers than their E.U. partners.Greek Coast Guard forces have been accused of setting migrants adrift in flimsy rafts, which has sometimes led to drownings before the crafts are intercepted by Turkish patrols.At least three people have died in the Aegean Sea since last September, victims of almost 540 incidents of informal returns by Greece reported since the beginning of 2020, Filippo Grandi, head of the United Nations refugee agency, said in a statement released Monday.The tactics are much the same along Greece’s land borders, which have for decades been a major crossing point, and the scene of pushbacks, of migrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa heading to Europe.The situation has grown worse since 2020, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey announced he was lifting restraints on migrants heading to Greece, and Greece strengthened its border controls. The two countries remain at loggerheads.In a rare rebuke, Mr. Grandi warned in his statement that increasing violence against migrants and refugees on European borders was leading to loss of life, and singled out Greece for “recurrent and consistent reports” of violent pushbacks.Mr. Mitarachi expressed surprise at Mr. Grandi’s comments in a statement issued by his ministry, and said that Greece protects the external borders of the European Union in compliance with international law and human rights.That was not what the four survivors described. They said they had been 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 outerwear and drove them to the edge of the River Evros, which divides Greece and Turkey.“They took my phone, wallet, passport, a locket and bracelet, and my bus ticket,” Mr. Singh said. He had not even come from Turkey but had entered Greece from Serbia and was traveling by bus to the capital, Athens, when he was detained, but he was pushed into Turkey nevertheless.At the river they were made to board a rubber dinghy in groups of eight to 10 and were pulled across the river with a rope and pulley system. Armed men in uniforms and black balaclavas oversaw the operation.“It was not good but there was nothing we could do,” said Muhammad Saiful Islam, 22, an electrician from Bangladesh who was detained a few hours after crossing into Greece.Barefoot, stripped down to a thin, hooded…

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