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Greece Denies Turkey's Claim of Migrant Expulsions

FILE - A Greek coast guard boat intercepts a dinghy with migrants near the Greek island of Lesbos, after it crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey, March 1, 2020.
FILE - A Greek coast guard boat intercepts a dinghy with migrants near the Greek island of Lesbos, after it crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey, March 1, 2020.

Greece has denied reports it has secretly expelled hundreds of migrants and refugees who illegally entered the country through Turkey.

Three independent monitor groups and the Turkish coast guard reportedly say Greek authorities committed human rights violations, and have accused Athens of secretly expelling more than 1,000 asylum seekers in recent months.

The allegations, reported last week by The New York Times, claim the Greek coast guard dropped migrants into rafts, at least 31 times – accusations that have sparked a strong rebuttal from Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

“Greece has every right as a sovereign state to defend its borders. We have a tough but fair border management policy,” he said.

Other Greek officials contacted by VOA deny that the Greek coast guard used proxy forces to conduct the pushbacks.

Forced returns are a serious breach of international law, violating asylum seekers' rights to safe passage and protection.

Croatia, France, Spain and Italy – all countries with similar migrant problems – have also been accused of engaging in unlawful pushbacks.

The latest accusations by human rights advocates are not new to Greece.

The country has been in the throes of Europe’s biggest migration crisis since 2015, when more than a million asylum seekers, mainly Syrians, streamed into neighboring Turkey, the making the crossing into Greece and on to other parts of Europe.

Earlier this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lifted all border controls, giving the green light to millions of refugees trapped in his country to flee to Europe through Greece. The government in Athens responded by invoking special powers, allowing it to block what it called an enemy invasion.

That Turkey is now fanning allegations of migrant abuse, Mitsotakis said, is a reflection of its own wrongdoing.

“It is sort of strange that the finger is being pointed at Greece when we know exactly what has been happening over the past month and how migrants and refugees were essentially weaponized by Turkey,” he said.

Turkey has made no comment in connection with these latest allegations. But it has openly accused Greece of engaging in systematic migrant pushbacks, alleging earlier this year that the Greek coast guard had opened fire at refugee boats, sinking them and injuring asylum seekers.

The United Nations says nearly 12,000 asylum seekers have illegally entered Greece from Turkey since the start of the year, drastically fewer than in the same period last year.

It is not clear how many in total have tried to make the dangerous sea and land crossing and how many lives may have been lost in those desperate bids.

Turkish media put that number of migrants at as many as 70,000, underscoring Greece's tightened new border management controls.

The European Union says it will investigate the allegations.