Turkey: 12 migrants freeze to death after alleged pushback

ANKARA, Turkey — The bodies of 12 migrants who froze to death were found near Turkey’s border with Greece, the Turkish interior minister said Wednesday, accusing Greek border guards of pushing them back over the frontier.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu tweeted that the 12 were among 22 migrants who were allegedly pushed back into Turkey by Greek border guards. He said they were found near the Ipsala border crossing between Turkey and Greece “without shoes and stripped of their clothes.”

The minister didn’t provide further details, but shared blurred photographs of eight of the recovered bodies, including three in shorts and T-shirts.

Soylu accused Greek border units of acting as “thugs” toward migrants while showing sympathy toward members of a network — which Turkey says is behind a 2016 failed military coup — who have escaped to Greece.

He also accused the European Union of being “helpless, weak and inhumane.”

In Greece, Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said the deaths were a “tragedy” but strongly denied the claim that Greek forces had pushed back the migrants.

“The truth behind the incident has nothing to do with the false propaganda made public by my colleague, Mr Soylu,” Mitarachi said in a statement. These specific migrants did not cross the border. Any suggestion that they may have reached it or been pushed back to Turkey is utter nonsense.”

Mitarachi accused Turkey of failing to prevent migrants from approaching the border area and undertaking “these dangerous journeys.”

“Instead of accusing others, Turkey should assume its responsibilities if we want to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.”

Turkey frequently accuses neighboring Greece of illegally pushing back migrants wanting to make their way into Europe. Greece refutes claims that it pushes migrants back to stop them applying for international protection.

The International Organization for Migration said it was “horrified” by the reported deaths and that it would follow up the incident with the relevant authorities.

“Mounting reports of pushbacks against people on the move at some European borders and many parts of the world are extremely concerning and should be investigated and action taken,” said Safa Msehli, a spokesperson for the IOM.

“We reiterate that such practices are prohibited under International Law and should not happen under any circumstances,” she said. “The obligation and primacy of saving lives and prioritizing the well-being and human rights of migrants are vital to the integrity of any border.”

The governor’s office for Edirne province, near the land border with Greece, said the deceased included a migrant who died in a hospital after being rescued by Turkish authorities. The nationalities of the migrants were not disclosed.

Turkey, which hosts about 3.7 million Syrian refugees, is a major crossing point for migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa seeking a better life in European Union countries.

Most try to cross into Greece — a key gateway to the EU for people fleeing war or poverty — by either crossing the northeastern land border or cramming into smuggling boats headed for the eastern Aegean Sea islands.

Recently, smuggling gangs have even been piling migrants into yachts heading from Turkey to Italy. Last month, dozens of migrants drowned in central Aegean.

Nicholas Paphitis in Athens and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed.

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