ATHENS: The UN refugee agency on Friday said it was deeply concerned by “credible reports” that Greek authorities had towed migrant ships back out to sea or just left them adrift.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement there were testimonies about “people being left adrift at sea for a long time, often on unseaworthy and overcrowded dinghies, waiting to be rescued”.
The UN body said it was “particularly concerned” about an increasing number of reports since March that some migrants who disembarked on Greek shores “have thereafter been towed back to sea”.
A third area of concern for the UNCHR were reports of migrants being informally returned to Turkey immediately after reaching Greek soil or territorial waters in recent months.
On Wednesday Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis denied claims of illegal pushbacks of asylum-seekers at sea and accused Turkey of peddling “misinformation” about his country’s “tough but fair” border management.
The New York Times on August 14 said Greece was “abandoning” migrants at sea for the Turkish coastguard to rescue.
It said it had interviewed survivors from five such episodes, and cited additional evidence from independent watchdogs, two academic researchers and the Turkish coastguard.
Based on its research, the Times said more than 1,000 asylum-seekers had been “dropped at sea” since March.
More than a million migrants and refugees arrived in Greece in 2015 and 2016, according to the UN refugee agency. There are now around 120,000 in the country.
More than 25,000 asylum- seekers live in camps on the five Aegean islands that were originally built to handle just 6,095 people.
UNHCR Representative in Greece Philippe Leclerc acknowledged on Friday that “Greece and its people have shown immense solidarity and compassion with thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers who have sought safety in the country since 2015”.
However, he added that “safeguarding Greece’s borders and protecting refugees are not mutually exclusive. Both are and should be possible. This is not a dilemma but a balance that must be struck”.
The UNHCR called for an investigation into the reports, without delay, “given the nature, content, frequency and consistency of these accounts” and urged Greece to refrain from “such practices”.
In his comments on Wednesday, Mitsotakis promised that “if there’s any incident that needs to be explored, if there’s any exaggeration at any given point, I’m going to be the first to look into it”.
In March, thousands of migrants flocked to the Greek border after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would no longer stop migrants who wished to get to the EU.
Days of chaos ensued at the border as Greek police fired tear gas at migrants and claimed Turkish police were helping them to break through.
Ankara in turn accused Athens of beating migrants and firing live rounds at them, alleging that some died of bullet injuries.
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