On Wednesday, Turkish authorities discovered eleven bodies near the border region with Greece. A twelfth person was discovered with frostbite who later died in hospital. On Thursday, they claimed to have found four more dead bodies.
On Wednesday, February 2, Turkish officials say they discovered the bodies of nine migrants not far from the border with Greece. According to the BBC, the officials then began searching the area and found two more dead bodies and one person with frostbite who later died in hospital. The bodies were found near the Turkish town of Ipsala, according Al Jazeera.
On Thursday, February 3, the French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP) reported the Turkish authorities had found an additional four bodies of migrants who reportedly froze to death in the border region.
Four more bodies found
"After search operations in the region, the bodies of four more migrants were found, unfortunately," said a statement from the governor’s office of Edirne, the region near the Greek border.
The claims began on Wednesday when the Turkish interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, tweeted pictures of some of the bodies, which had been blurred out, and accused the Greek border guards of causing their deaths. He alleged that the Greek authorities stripped the migrants of their clothes and shoes after they had crossed the border into Greece, before pushing them back into Turkey.
The Turkish meteorological service currently shows that temperatures at night in the border region are falling to just below freezing, about minus two or minus three degrees.
Although the Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis did not directly dispute the deaths, he called the Turkish claims "false propaganda." According to the Greek newspaper Ekathimerini, Mitarakis said that while the deaths were a tragedy, the migrants had never made it over the border into Greece.
Mitarakis said that the Turkish authorities needed to "do more to prevent migrants from setting off from there," reported Ekathimerini. In a statement, Mitarakis said: "These migrants never made it to the border. Any suggestion that they did, or indeed were pushed back into Turkey, is utter nonsense."
Soylu said that the 12 were part of a larger group of 22 migrants who reported being stripped of their clothes by the Greek border guards. The nationality of the migrants was not reported by either Turkish or Greek news sources.
Mitarakis said that "instead of accusing others, Turkey should assume its responsibilities if we want to prevent such tragedies from occurring again."
IOM 'horrified' by reported deaths
The UN migration agency IOM in a statement said it was "horrified" by the reported deaths. Safa Msehli, IOM spokesperson in Geneva, said: "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."
Msehli reiterated that "such practices are prohibited under international law and should not happen under any circumstances. The obligation and primacy of saving lives and prioritizing the wellbeing and human rights of migrants are vital to the integrity of any border," reported Al Jazeera.
Ylva Johansson reaction
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told AFP reporters that she was "a bit shocked" upon hearing the news.
Johansson was in the middle of an EU meeting of interior ministers in France at the time. She said she would raise the issue with the Greek minister and ask for clarification. "This needs to be investigated of course," she said.
A further direct statement from Johansson has not yet been issued. Meanwhile she posted a short video statement on Twitter in which she welcomed "stronger governance of the Schengen area," and said that the EU needed to "make sure nobody enters undetected, protecting our external borders effectively and in line with our values."
The Greek border with Turkey, much of which runs alongside the Evros river, has been reinforced in the last few years with wire, high walls and frequent patrols. In March 2020, Turkey was accused of sending thousands of migrants to the borders with Greece in an effort to strong hand the EU into providing more money to deal with the millions of refugees and asylum seekers that Turkey hosts.
Tensions between Greece and Turkey are frequently heightened. Turkey regularly accuses Greece of pushbacks and ill-treatment of migrants, claims denied by Greece, despite mounting evidence from rights groups to the contrary.
For its part, Greece says Turkey is not doing enough to prevent migrants from entering the EU and is violating the 2016 EU-Turkey deal which saw the EU promise billions of euros in return for Turkey hosting asylum seekers and refugees on its territory.
Read also: NGO accuses Greece of pushback