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Turkey, Greece accuse each other over border deaths

February 11, 2022

In early February, 19 migrants froze to death at the Greek-Turkish border. Ever since, both Ankara and Athens have been blaming each other for the deaths, yet providing no evidence of what actually happened.

Fence along the border between Greece and Turkey
The border fence between Turkey and Greece runs near the wetlands of the Evros RiverImage: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/imago images

On February 2, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu published four disturbing images on his Twitter account. The pictures showed several men, seemingly unconscious, lying in the mud on a dirt track in the middle of nowhere.

Soylu wrote: "12 of the 22 migrants pushed back by Greek Border Units, stripped off from their clothes and shoes have frozen to death. EU is remediless, weak and void of humane feelings."

It did not take long for Greek Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachi to respond. In a video message, he said: "The statements of the Turkish leadership regarding the tragic incident in which people lost their lives in Turkey were unacceptable. It is Turkey's responsibility to prevent illegal departures." He later added that the "migrants in questions never reached the border."

How Mitarachi can be sure of that remains unclear. A source within the Greek Ministry told DW "that there were absolutely no records of these people at all." This, however, does not prove whether or not the victims set foot on Greek soil.

For its part, Turkey has not provided any evidence to back up its allegations against Greece either. In the meantime, seven more people discovered near the Evros River along the border have died, bringing the death toll to 19.

Map showing the border between Turkey and Greece and the Evros River

Lack of transparency

Independent researcher Lena Karamanidou is reluctant to believe either side. She feels that there are too many allegations and a lack of transparency. Having grown up in the Evros region, she is now based in Glasgow and has been monitoring migration movements at the Greek-Turkish border for many years.

Karamanidou pointed out that there is a history of pushbacks in the Evros region dating back to the 1980s.

She told DW that people regularly lose their lives either while attempting to cross the border or during a pushback. "The unusual element of this incident is not that people lost their lives," she explains, "but the high number of deaths."

Increased anti-migrant sentiment in Greece

Karamanidou does not share the Greek interior minister's theory that the victims failed to reach Greece. "We know from multiple reports by human rights organizations and NGOs [nongovermental organizations] that people who cross the border are not necessarily registered, especially prior to pushbacks."

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu looking out of a plane window at the border to Greece, March 2020
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu has accused Greek border guards of forcing migrants back over the border into Turkey in freezing conditionsImage: Xinhua/dpa/picture alliance

She said that political discourse on migration in Greece has always been "hostile, nationalist, and racist" — but that anti-migrant sentiment has intensified over the past two years.

Karamanidou believes that the government and mainstream media close to the government share responsibility for this: "They actively promote such discourse, including through representations of migration as a national security threat linked to Turkey," she said.

According to Karamanidou, this ongoing propaganda war between Athens and Ankara, which is being fought at the expense of asylum-seekers, has a long history in both countries.

"Greek and Turkish national identities have been shaped through narratives of this enmity [...] responses to migration in Greece have long blamed Turkey for not controlling migration or not cooperating on migration control," she asserted.

Greek migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, speaking at a podium
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi rejected Ankara's statements on the death of the migrants, saying they had never reached the Greek borderImage: Eurokinissi/ANE/picture alliance

EU divided on migration policy

Meanwhile, the European Union continues struggling to find common ground on matters of migration. Several member states are not willing to take in asylum-seekers at all. As a result, the EU is now focusing on keeping its borders closed.

With regard to Greece, countless media reports have documented illegal pushbacks, irregularities in the country's asylum system and police violence against migrants.

But despite evidence of this and numerous indications of Greece's mishandling EU funds, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson has refrained from officially reprimanding Athens or launching an infringement procedure.

Her only reaction so far has been to express "great concern," insisting that Athens investigate cases of illegal practices, and to state publicly that border protection must be in accordance with EU law.

Officials look at screens in the Frontex border protection control room in Nea Vyssa, near the Turkish border, Greece
Greece has stepped up its surveillance capabilities to fight increased refugee and migrant flows from TurkeyImage: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Carefully timed tweet?

Soylu's tweet about the dead migrants at the Greek-Turkish border came during an informal meeting of the European Home Affair Ministers in Lille, France — an event attended by both Johansson and Mitarachi.

Given the political turmoil between Ankara and Athens, and also between Ankara and the EU, it is hard to imagine that the timing was a coincidence.

When asked that evening at a press conference about the incident at the Greek-Turkish border, Commissioner Johansson said: "This should never have happened, that migrants who try to enter the European Union lost their lives."

She added that Mitarachi had assured her that the victims had not entered Greece, but said that the incident needed to be investigated further.

DW got in touch with her office for an update regarding this investigation, but the commissioner was not available for an interview.

Bringing closure to migrants' families

German response to the migrant deaths

Human rights organizations were hoping that Germany's new government and its new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party, would be more vocal regarding the situation at the EU's external borders.

The German Foreign Office issued a statement about the death of the migrants, saying: "It's important to find out the actual circumstances of the incident."

Experts have been demanding installation of an independent border-monitoring system in Greece, which would assure that authorities there play by the rules. Athens, however, refuses such a mechanism, saying that the situation is under control.

The German Foreign Office told DW that the German government "generally supports the installation of an independent border mechanism," adding that it is "important that nongovernmental actors, e.g. NGOs, are also granted access in order to observe the situation at the external borders of the EU."

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan

Portrait of a man with brown hair and a beard
Florian Schmitz Reporter with a focus on Greece