‘They Just Left Us’: Greece Is Accused of Setting Migrants Adrift at Sea

ABOARD A TURKISH COAST GUARD VESSEL — Wet and shaken, girls and kids have been pulled aboard the Turkish patrol boat first, then the lads and extra kids.

A 7-year-old woman in striped leggings, Heliah Nazari, shivered uncontrollably as she was set down on the deck. An older girl retched right into a plastic bag.

They have been two of 20 asylum seekers from Afghanistan who had been drifting at the hours of darkness, deserted in rudderless rafts for 4 hours earlier than the Turkish Coast Guard reached them.

Just hours earlier that they had been resting in a forest on the Greek island of Lesbos after they have been caught by Greek law enforcement officials who confiscated their paperwork, cash and cellphones and ferried them out to sea.

“They kicked us all, with their feet, even the children, women, men and everyone,” mentioned Ashraf Salih, 21, recounting their story. “They did not say anything, they just left us. They weren’t humane at all.”

The Turkish Coast Guard officers described it as a transparent case — hardly ever witnessed by journalists — of the unlawful pushbacks which have now change into an everyday function of the harmful recreation of cat and mouse between the 2 nations over hundreds of migrants who proceed to try the ocean crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands as a method into Europe.

Migrants who had change into adrift within the Aegean have been rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard this month. Thousands of individuals proceed to try the ocean crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands as a method into Europe.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Since a mutual settlement broke down final yr, Turkey and Greece have been at loggerheads over how you can take care of the persevering with move of migrants alongside one of probably the most frequented routes used because the mass motion boomed in 2015.

Then, a million migrants, largely Syrians fleeing the conflict of their nation, led the surge into Europe. The move is way diminished — 40,000 have arrived by sea into Europe to this point this yr — however it’s now dominated by Afghans, elevating fears that the escalating battle there and the American withdrawal of troops may deliver bigger numbers.

For greater than a yr, Turkey has turned a blind eye to the migrants, permitting them to strive the ocean crossing to Greece. That nation has resorted to expelling migrants forcibly, disabling their boats and pushing them again to Turkey when they’re caught at sea.

Increasingly, Greece is even eradicating asylum seekers who’ve reached its islands, forcing them into life rafts and towing them into Turkish waters, because the compassion many Greeks had proven throughout earlier waves of migration has given solution to anger and exhaustion.

The tactic of so-called pushbacks has been roundly denounced by refugee organizations and European officers as a violation of worldwide regulation and of elementary European values. The Greek authorities denies that it has pushed again any migrants, whereas insisting on its proper to guard its borders.

“It is obvious they were pushed back,” mentioned Senior Lt. Cmdr. Sadun Ozdemir, the Northern Aegean group commander within the Turkish Coast Guard, after his crew rescued a bunch of Afghans within the Aegean. Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

“Numerous cases have been investigated, including by the European Union,” Notis Mitarachi, minister for migration and asylum in Greece, mentioned final week, “and reports have found no evidence of any breach of E.U. fundamental rights.”

Philippe Leclerc, head of the United Nations refugee company in Turkey, mentioned his workplace had introduced proof, together with “accounts of violence and family separations” to the Greek ombudsman, requesting the instances be investigated, with out end result.

The two nations are at an deadlock, with Turkey demanding that Greece finish the pushbacks first, and Greece demanding that Turkey first take again 1,400 migrants whose asylum requests have been rejected, Mr. Leclerc mentioned.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has been broadly accused of precipitating the disaster, when in February final yr he introduced he was opening his nation’s borders for migrants to journey to Europe.

Turkish officers, who spoke on situation of anonymity as a result of they weren’t permitted to talk to the information media, mentioned the step was taken to attract world consideration to Turkey’s personal burden in internet hosting some 4 million asylum seekers from different nations’ wars — greater than three.6 million Syrians, together with 400,000 different individuals from Afghanistan, Asia and the Middle East. It is the only largest refugee neighborhood on this planet, and has taken over entire suburbs of Istanbul and the capital, Ankara.

But the motion was interpreted in Greece as a form of blackmail to extort cash and different concessions from the European Union on a variety of points.

Migrants making an attempt to cross the Aegean from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos have been rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard after their engine stalled this month.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

It led to clashes between migrants and Greek border guards on the Turkish-Greek border and triggered the conservative Greek authorities to undertake aggressive new measures in opposition to migrants, together with the pushbacks.

Greece has struggled to deal with the inflow of greater than 100,000 asylum instances and overcrowded refugee camps on its islands whereas different European nations have performed little to share the burden.

But Turkish officers stress that the numbers Greece is dealing with are nothing in contrast with the size of the pressure on Turkey. Resentment in opposition to the migrants in Turkey has grown as financial situations have worsened, threatening Mr. Erdogan’s political standing. He, in flip, has railed in opposition to wealthier states shirking their duties towards the world’s refugees and never doing sufficient to finish the conflicts that trigger them to flee.

Frustrated after greater than a yr of selecting up hundreds of migrants left by their Greek counterparts, the Turkish Coast Guard invited journalists not too long ago on a patrol boat to witness what they mentioned have been the Greek violations.

“It is obvious they were pushed back,” Senior Lt. Cmdr. Sadun Ozdemir, the Northern Aegean group commander of the Turkish Coast Guard, mentioned after his crew had rescued the 20 Afghans. “They did not come from the sky.”

Some of the rescued Afghans again on shore in Dikili, Turkey. Heliah Nazari, proper, was recovering in dry garments provided by the International Organization for Migration.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

He mentioned the Greek vessel had most likely towed the rafts deep into Turkish territorial waters earlier than slicing them adrift, which he mentioned was a further violation.

One raft was overloaded and the skinny backside leaking, he mentioned. “That boat could have sunk in one or two minutes, and possibly they do not know how to swim and they could have drowned.”

As typically occurs, the Turkish crew obtained an e mail from their Greek counterparts that migrants have been drifting within the space — a seeming effort by the Greeks to mitigate loss of life however one thing the Turks say is an implicit signal of Greek culpability.

Tommy Olsen, who runs the Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian nonprofit that tracks arrivals of migrants on the Greek islands, confirmed by way of images and digital knowledge that members of the group had been on the island of Lesbos that day.

A neighborhood photographer additionally took footage of some of them in entrance of a Greek church, a landmark on the south of the island. Another confirmed Mr. Salih and his mom resting beside the fence of a home, with the woman in striped leggings consuming juice and smiling.

Rescued migrants on a Turkish Coast Guard ship. Stranded after their engine failed, most of them mentioned that they had been pushed again a number of occasions by the Greek authorities. Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

The pushbacks additionally injury relations between the Greek and Turkish Coast Guards and intervene with work in opposition to drug and other people trafficking, Commander Ozdemir mentioned.

Commercial ships in addition to navy and coast guard vessels move by way of the northern Aegean and will simply hit the small rafts and boats, which don’t have any lights or means of navigation, he added.

“This thing we call ‘pushback’ in English is a very innocent expression,” he mentioned. But the motion was something however, he mentioned, hoping to convey “how desperate the situation is.”

Interviews with migrants rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard in a number of incidents over the course of 4 nights revealed the size of Greek violations and the rising desperation of migrants.

One group of 18 individuals, from Africa and the Middle East, have been rescued after their engine broke down.

A Turkish Coast Guard ship confronted a Greek Coast Guard vessel close to the island of Lesbos this month. Commander Ozdemir mentioned the pushbacks broken relations between the 2 providers.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Muhammad Nasir, 29, mentioned he had fled the conflict in Yemen after his father was killed. He was making an attempt to affix his uncle in Britain. He mentioned he had been pushed again seven occasions by the Greek Coast Guard; this was his eighth try.

“For three months, I have been trying,” he mentioned, his voice cracking. “I feel disappointed. I cannot stay in Turkey, I do not have a job and my family are waiting for me to help them.”

An Afghan teenager with an injured leg, Reyhan Ahmedi, 16, was picked up after six hours at sea alone after being expelled by Greece. He mentioned he had fled his residence within the city of Gereshk, in southern Afghanistan, as assaults from the Taliban escalated. When he received information that his residence had been bombed and was unable to succeed in his mother and father, he determined to make a bid to succeed in Europe.

“I thought I should take myself away from Afghanistan and find a better future for myself,” he mentioned. “I want to get an education.”

The Aegean, close to Cunda, Turkey. Some 40,000 migrants have arrived by sea into Europe to this point this yr, largely Afghans.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times