A security guard stands at the entrance of the Medical Forensic Institution in Istanbul, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.

In a Turkish border town, migrant ‘pushbacks’ from Greece turn deadly

Last week, 19 migrants froze to death near a Turkish village on the border with Greece. Their deaths shed new light on pushbacks, which witnesses say are routine.

The World

A security guard stands at the entrance of the Medical Forensic Institution in Istanbul, Feb. 3, 2022. Turkey has blamed Greece for the deaths of 19 migrants in a Turkish border town, accusing Greek border guards of illegally pushing the migrants back over the frontier. Greece has strongly rejected the accusation. 

Emrah Gurel/AP

The migrants arrive early in the morning in Turkish villages along the Greek border, residents say. 

Often barefoot and inadequately clothed, they follow the smoke from the chimneys of houses along the river that mark Turkey’s border with Greece, and knock on doors, seeking help. Others seek shelter in deserted farmhouses in the area.

Last week, 19 migrants froze to death near the Turkish border town of Ipsala. 

Their deaths shed new light on pushbacks — the practice of immediately forcing refugees and migrants back over a border without the chance for them to apply for asylum.

Witnesses say pushbacks at the Greece-Turkey border are routine. But Greece strongly denies these claims.

Related: Afghans endure indefinite limbo at 5-star hotel in Albania

A view of Ipsala from the bus station. For many migrants and refugees, this town is their last stop before walking into Greece.

A view of Ipsala from the bus station. For many migrants and refugees, this town is their last stop before walking into Greece.

Credit:

Durrie Bouscaren/The World

Survivors who were traveling with the group said they were arrested on Greek territory, stripped of their belongings, and forced back into Turkey.

“We had nothing with us, no clothes. Not even shoes. ... Does anyone do such torture [to] others?”

Riyaz A., migrant from Bangladesh in Turkey who survived a "pushback" by Greek authorities, according to his testimony

“We had nothing with us, no clothes. Not even shoes,” said a survivor identified by Turkish state media as Riyaz A. “Does anyone do such torture [to] others?”

Riyaz said he was from Bangladesh, in an emotional interview given to a handful of pro-government Turkish media channels and later posted on YouTube. He also said he was traveling with about 50 people from Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and an unspecified African country.

He said the migrants were held in a Greek detention center for two or three days without food or water.

On Feb. 1, Greek police deported the young men across the river that forms the Greece-Turkey border and forced them to walk into Turkish territory, according to Riyaz’s testimony.

The majority of the group stopped to rest on that rainy night, many without coats. But Riyaz said he and a friend made the decision to keep walking.

“The Turkish police provided us with food, jackets and medical treatment,” Riyaz said. “This is why we are fine now, otherwise we could have died.”

An ambulance carrying the bodies of victims enters the Medical Forensic Institution in Istanbul, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. 

An ambulance carrying the bodies of victims enters the Medical Forensic Institution in Istanbul, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.

Credit:

Emrah Gurel/AP

Selim Vatandaş, an analyst and researcher for the Istanbul-based International Refugee Rights Association, visited the scene near Ipsala immediately, to interview first responders and witnesses.

“There’s no doubt that it violates international conventions to which Greece is a party."

Selim Vatandaş, analyst and researcher, International Refugee Rights Association, Istanbul, Turkey

“There’s no doubt that it violates international conventions to which Greece is a party,” Vatandaş said.

The 19 victims were all young men under the age of 30, he said. They were found in various levels of undress — a fact confirmed by blurred out photographs of the bodies, released by Turkish officials.

Victims were found with no wallets or cell phones, Vatandaş said, making it difficult for authorities to contact their families. Forensics teams will have to resort to DNA samples from hair and dental records to identify them.

“In this kind of situation, it takes three to five months, unfortunately,” Vatandaş said.

The Greek government has denied any responsibility for the deaths.

Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi has accused Turkey of creating “false propaganda.” In a Feb. 2 statement, he claimed that the migrants never made it to the Greek border, and that any suggestion they had been pushed back into Turkey was “utter nonsense.”

Related: ‘We have no future’: Afghan women protest Taliban restrictions

On Sunday, protests in Athens took place against border pushbacks.

Members of human rights and migrant rights groups hold placards in Turkish and English as they gather in front of the Greek consulate in Istanbul, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, to protest the deaths of migrants at Turkey-Greece border. 

Members of human rights and migrant rights groups hold placards in Turkish and English as they gather in front of the Greek consulate in Istanbul, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, to protest the deaths of migrants at Turkey-Greece border. 

Credit:

Emrah Gurel/AP

Over the past two years, the United Nations has documented 550 cases of Greek authorities forcing migrants out of the country. It now faces at least eight lawsuits in the European Court of Human Rights.

“What’s concerning is that they’re very consistent, the number of reports is increasing and also the level of violence during these pushback incidents is also increasing."

Louise Donovan, communications officer for the UN Refugee Agency, Athens, Greece

“What’s concerning is that they’re very consistent, the number of reports is increasing and also the level of violence during these pushback incidents is also increasing,” said Louise Donovan, an Athens-based communications officer for the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

Donovan said it has been challenging to independently verify the details of last week’s case at the Turkish border. Her office is calling for an independent investigation. 

Related: ‘The best is yet to come': Thousands of Bulgarians return home during pandemic

After being pushed back from Greece, migrants must trudge through miles of rice fields such as this one. Without shoes or clothing, it’s a brutal experience. 

After being pushed back from Greece, migrants must trudge through miles of rice fields such as this one. Without shoes or clothing, it’s a brutal experience. 

Credit:

Durrie Bouscaren/The World

Pushbacks are not unique to Greece. Turkey has also been documented as pushing migrants back from its border with Iran.

Fewer people are making the dangerous trip to Europe, but the journey is getting deadlier. An estimated 111 migrants and refugees have been reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean region since Jan. 1.

Despite the risk, migrants in Turkey continue to walk to the Greek border in hopes of a safe crossing. 

In Ipsala, farmers say they regularly find groups of migrants hiding in their rice fields. Sometimes, people drown trying to cross the river over to Greece. Local village leaders regularly put out calls for clothing donations on WhatsApp.

In Ipsala’s main square, a woman named Sevinç Anne, or Mother Sevinç, sells fresh rounds of fried dough for two Turkish liras —  about $0.15. Many of her customers are the migrants who get off buses that arrive in town every night, she said.

“We collect shoes and socks for them when they get pushed back,” she said.

Related: A group of Haitian migrants says they were abused at the US-Mexico border. They’re suing the US govt.

Sevinç Anne, or Mother Sevinç, sells homemade rounds of fried dough in Ipsala’s main square.

Sevinç Anne, or Mother Sevinç, sells homemade rounds of fried dough in Ipsala’s main square. Many of her customers are migrants and refugees passing through on their way to the Greek border, or returning after a pushback. “They’re hungry and I feed them,” she says. “What can I do? I can’t let them go.”

Credit:

Durrie Bouscaren/The World

Some stick around for a month or so, earning money at local factories before trying to cross again.

“They’re hungry and I feed them,” she said. “What can I do? I can’t let them go.” 

Editor's note: Translations from Hindi and Bengali provided by Muktadir Rashid.

Will you help our nonprofit newsroom today?

Every week, more than 2 million listeners tune into our broadcast and follow our digital coverage like this story, which is available to read for free thanks to charitable contributions from listeners like you. But less than 1% of our audience supports our program directly. From now through the end of the year, every gift will be matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor, which means your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 challenge match.

Will you join our growing list of loyal supporters and double your impact today?