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Refugees warm themselves at a fire on the bank of the Evros River, Edirne, Turkey, March 3, 2020
For many years, migrants have been trying to enter the EU by crossing the Evros River, which forms the border between Turkey and GreeceImage: Ahmed Deeb/dpa/picture alliance

Greece-Turkey: Mystery around alleged death of refugee girl

Florian Schmitz
November 30, 2022

A major German news weekly has retracted a series of articles about an incident involving refugees on the Evros River.


"Maria is dead. She died at Europe's external borders in early August because Greek authorities denied her all help."

These two sentences ran in one of four articles published by the German news magazine Der Spiegel in late summer — until a few days ago.

The reports are no longer available. Instead, there is a statement saying there are doubts "about the past description of the events at that time." Der Spiegel now wants to review the reports and decide whether the articles "will be published again in corrected and updated form, if necessary."

An aerial view of the islets that appear when the water level of the Evros River drops, Edirne, Turkey, August 20, 2020
Last summer, a group of 38 refugees was stranded for weeks on a small island in the Evros River, like the one pictured aboveImage: Cihan Demirci/AA/picture alliance

The retracted articles told the fate of a group of 38 refugees, mostly from Syria, who were stuck for weeks last summer on a small, uninhabited island in the Evros River, between Greece and Turkey. The group had asked Greek authorities to let them into the country and had also been in contact with aid organizations and journalists.

Refugees stranded between Greece and Turkey

The incident dragged on for weeks. Through WhatsApp messages, the refugees asked for help for a little girl who had allegedly been stung by a scorpion and was in critical condition. A few days later, they announced that the girl had died and they had buried her on the island. Social media shared the group's Google location, which showed them on the Greek side of the border. The European Court of Justice issued an injunction asking the Greek authorities to save the group.

Initially, the authorities did not react. Then, they claimed they could not locate the group. Later, the Greek government explained that the group was on the Turkish side of the border and the Greek authorities could not intervene.

Map showing the course of the land and sea border between Greece and Turkey

After several weeks, the group's ordeal finally ended when they were rescued by Greek police and taken to a refugee shelter. Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi told the press that the people were in good health and expressed regret at the girl's death. However, doubts as to whether the girl had actually died started circulating in Greek media shortly after. There was even a rumor that the child never existed in the first place.

No parallels to another case involving Der Spiegel

These events were not only reported by Der Spiegel but also picked up by other international media outlets, including Al Jazeera, and by Channel 4 in the UK, as well as Greek media, such as the daily newspaper EFSYN. Much of that coverage is still available online.

Some German media outlets have compared the decision by Der Spiegel to withdraw the reports to the affair involving former reporter Claas Relotius. In 2018, the former Spiegel contributor admitted that he had invented and falsified much of his reporting.The affair was nicknamed SpiegelGate and damaged the magazine's reputation.

Former Spiegel reporter Claas Relotius holding his CNN Award for journalism, Munich, March 27, 2014
Relotius won a CNN Award for journalism in 2014. Four years later, he admitted that he had invented and falsified much of his reportingImage: picture alliance/dpa/U. Düren

However, its reporting on Evros is not pure fiction. But in Germany, that's been ignored in parts of the media. Populist blogs, such as Tichys Einblick or Medienwatch, and tabloid media such as Bild have portrayed Der Spiegel Greek correspondent Giorgos Christides as the new Relotius.

Girl's parents call for exhumation

The girl's parents, who belonged to the group of 38 refugees, maintain to this day that they had to bury their daughter on the island and have even asked for the exhumation of the body.

Independent researchers have also refuted the Greek government's claim that the island belongs to Turkey. An investigation has proven that the state border runs along the island and that the larger part of the island belongs to Greece.

Athens has not denied that fact, but still claims that the people seeking protection, who had asked the Greek authorities for help, got into difficulty on the Turkish side of the island and thus could not have been rescued.

Independent verification hardly possible

"The Greek authorities are staging a witch hunt not only against refugees per se, but also against nongovernmental organizations that help them and journalists who report on the issue," said Marina Rafenberg, a correspondent for the French daily Le Monde in Athens.

The Registration and Identification Centre (RIC) for migrants at Fylakio in northern Evros, seen through a fence topped with barbed wire, June 14, 2021
Most refugees caught entering Greece illegally by crossing the Evros are taken to the migrant center at FylakioImage: Byron Smith/Getty Images

She said that the situation for journalists in Greece is becoming increasingly difficult, especially in the Evros River region where independent reporting is hardly possible because the border is a restricted military area.

According to reports by human rights organizations and the media, it has become widespread practice in the region to refuse entry to Greece to those seeking protection — a clear violation of national and international law.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Greek authorities continue to claim they are following migration law. Yet they will not allow independent organizations to monitor the situation.

Rafenberg said this is a political game. "This is not just about migration in Greece. Athens is accusing  Ankara of instrumentalizing refugees to weaken Greece. If you talk publicly about pushbacks, you are called a Turkish agent," she said.

Character assassination campaigns instead of investigation

There have been numerous incidents of people dying while trying to cross the Evros, or getting stuck for days and weeks between Turkey and Greece. But there is hardly any coverage of these events in the Greek media.

The border fence in the Evros region with wildflowers in the foreground, Greece, June 18, 2021
Greece has built a concrete-reinforced 5-meter-high fence along its land border with Turkey to keep out illegal migrantsImage: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/picture alliance

But the case of the 38 refugees led to heated discussions and irritation in Greece, said Rafenberg. "Pro-government media in Greece are trying to discredit the work of foreign journalists," she said. Some journalists, she added, received calls from the government telling them they were dissatisfied with their work and threatening to file a complaint with their editors at home.

No explanation for articles' retraction

Why Der Spiegel withdrew all four articles on the Evros River incident and did not simply refer to pending developments in the case of the little girl remains unclear.

So far, Greek authorities have provided no evidence that the girl did not die or did not exist. What is certain is that the girl's parents continue to maintain that their daughter died on the island in the Evros River. What is also certain is that the parents, along with their other children and the rest of the group, were stuck on such an island for weeks and were not rescued.

However, if the Greek government continues to prevent any international, independent investigation of the incident, definitive answers to the many open questions are likely to remain elusive.

This article was originally published in German.

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