ON BOARD TURKISH COAST GUARD SHIP – Wet and shaken, the women and children were pulled aboard the Turkish patrol boat first, followed by the men and other children.
A 7-year-old girl in striped leggings, Heliah Nazari, shivered uncontrollably as she sat on the deck. An older woman threw up in a plastic bag.
These were two of 20 Afghan asylum seekers who had drifted in the dark, abandoned in rudderless rafts for four hours before the Turkish Coast Guard reached them.
Hours earlier, they were resting in a forest on the Greek island of Lesvos when they were arrested by Greek police officers who confiscated their documents, money and cellphones and transported them to sea.
“They kicked us all, even the children, women, men and everyone,” Ashraf Salih, 21, said, telling their story. “They didn’t say anything, they just left us. They weren’t human at all.
Turkish coastguard officials described it as a clear case – rarely seen by journalists – of illegal push-backs which have now become a regular feature of the dangerous cat-and-mouse game between the two countries over thousands of migrants. who continue to attempt the sea crossing from Turkey to the Greek Islands to enter Europe.
For more than a year, Turkey has turned a blind eye to migrants, allowing them to attempt the sea crossing to Greece. This country has resorted to the forced expulsion of migrants, the deactivation of their boats and their return to Turkey when they are taken at sea.
Increasingly, Greece is even expelling asylum seekers who have reached its islands, forcing them to board life rafts and towing them into Turkish waters, as the compassion many Greeks had shown in previous waves of migration gave way to anger and exhaustion.
The tactic of so-called push-backs has been categorically denounced by refugee organizations and European officials as a violation of international law and fundamental European values. The Greek government denies having repelled migrants, while insisting on its right to protect its borders.
“Many cases have been investigated, including by the European Union,” Greece’s Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachi said last week, “and the reports found no evidence violation of the fundamental rights of the EU “.
Philippe Leclerc, head of the UN refugee agency in Turkey, said his office had presented evidence, including “accounts of violence and family separation” to the Greek mediator, demanding that the cases be brought to the fore. of an investigation, without result.
The two countries are at an impasse, with Turkey demanding that Greece end refoulements first, and Greece demanding that Turkey first take back 1,400 migrants whose asylum claims have been rejected, Mr. Leclerc.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been widely accused of precipitating the crisis, when in February last year he announced he was opening his country’s borders to migrants to travel to Europe.
Turkish officials, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said the move was taken to draw the world’s attention to Turkey’s own burden of hosting something. four million asylum seekers from wars in other nations – over 3.6 million Syrians, as well as 400,000 others from Afghanistan, Asia and the Middle East. It is the largest refugee community in the world and has taken control of the entire suburb of Istanbul and the capital, Ankara.
But the action has been interpreted in Greece as a kind of blackmail to extort money and other concessions from the European Union on a range of issues.
This has led to clashes between migrants and Greek border guards at the Turkish-Greek border and prompted the conservative Greek government to adopt aggressive new measures against migrants, including refoulements.
Greece has struggled to cope with the influx of more than 100,000 asylum seekers and overcrowded refugee camps on its islands, while other European countries have done little to share the burden.
But Turkish officials stress that the numbers Greece manages are nothing compared to the extent of the pressure on Turkey. Resentment against migrants in Turkey has grown as economic conditions have deteriorated, threatening Mr. Erdogan’s political position. In turn, he has spoken out against richer states that have shirked their responsibilities to the world’s refugees and are not doing enough to end the conflicts that push them to flee.
Frustrated after more than a year recovering thousands of migrants left behind by their Greek counterparts, the Turkish coastguard recently invited journalists aboard a patrol boat to witness what they called Greek violations.
“It is obvious that they were pushed back,” said Lt. Cmdr. Sadun Ozdemir, the commander of the Turkish Coast Guard’s North Aegean Group, said after his crew rescued the 20 Afghans. “They did not come from heaven.
He said the Greek vessel likely towed the rafts deep into Turkish territorial waters before drifting them, which he said was a further violation.
One raft was overloaded and the thin bottom was leaking, he said. “This boat could have sunk in a minute or two, and maybe they can’t swim and they maybe drowned.”
As often happens, the Turkish crew received an email from their Greek counterparts indicating that migrants were drifting in the area – an apparent effort by the Greeks to mitigate the loss of life, but something the Turks say is a sign implicit in Greek guilt.
Tommy Olsen, who heads the Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian nonprofit that tracks migrant arrivals to the Greek islands, confirmed through photographs and electronic data that members of the group were on the island of Lesbos that day.
A local photographer also took photos of some of them in front of a Greek church, a landmark in the south of the island. Another photograph showed Mr. Salih and his mother resting by the fence of a house, with the girl in striped leggings drinking juice and smiling.
The pushbacks are also damaging relations between the Greek and Turkish coast guards and interfering with work against drug and human trafficking, Commander Ozdemir said.
Commercial vessels as well as navy and coastguard vessels pass through the northern Aegean Sea and could easily collide with small rafts and boats, which have no lights or means of navigation, he added.
“This thing that we call ‘pushback’ in English is a very innocent expression,” he said. But the action was anything but, he said, hoping to convey “how desperate the situation is.”
Interviews with migrants rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard in several incidents over four nights revealed the scale of Greek violations and the growing desperation of migrants.
A group of 18 people, from Africa and the Middle East, were rescued after an engine failure.
Muhammad Nasir, 29, said he fled the war in Yemen after his father died. He was trying to join his uncle in Britain. He said he had been pushed back seven times by the Greek Coast Guard; it was his eighth attempt.
“For three months I have been trying,” he said, his voice broken. “I feel disappointed. I cannot stay in Turkey, I have no job and my family is waiting for me to help them.
An Afghan teenager with a leg injury, Reyhan Ahmedi, 16, was recovered after six hours of sailing alone after being deported by Greece. He said he fled his home in the southern Afghan town of Gereshk as Taliban attacks escalated. When he learned that his house had been bombed and that he could not reach his parents, he decided to make an offer to reach Europe.
“I thought I had to get away from Afghanistan and find myself a better future,” he said. “I want to study. “