The Evros river forms part of the land border between Greece and Turkey | Photo: ©Mehdi Chebil
The Evros river forms part of the land border between Greece and Turkey | Photo: ©Mehdi Chebil

A group of 34 asylum seekers who had been stranded for two days on an island in the Evros river were finally evacuated on Friday. A humanitarian organization accused Greece and Turkey of 'playing with people's lives'.

The group Alarm Phone has confirmed that 34 people who had been stuck on an island in a river between Greece and Turkey for over 48 hours were rescued on Friday (April 1). "We hope they will recover quickly and that they will be granted access to asylum procedures as soon as possible," Alarm Phone wrote on Twitter.

The group of 34 migrants, which included six children under the age of ten and a pregnant woman, had spent more than two freezing days and nights stranded on the islet in the middle of the Evros river at the Greek-Turkish land border.

When their situation became desperate the group sent a message to several international organizations appealing for help: "We have young children, women and and old man. We suffer from lack of food and two children are in poor health … we cannot get out of here and out situation is tragic," they said.

The message added, "Greek soldiers terrify children and women with their methods, they want us to surrender ourselves to take us back to Turkey."

Together with Alarm Phone, the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) responded by alerting Greek authorities, the UN refugee agency UNHCR, and Frontex (the European border and coast guard agency) on Wednesday. After that the migrants reported seeing military vehicles and unmarked cars on the river bank on the Greek side, and drones were spotted in the area, Alarm Phone and BVMN said. But still no one came to evacuate the group.

It was only after BVMN asked the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to step in that Greece was forced to rescue the migrants from the island on Friday. Lorenz from Alarm Phone told InfoMigrants (French) that the court’s decision to grant so-called 'Interim Measures' -- an order for urgent action to be taken to prevent irreparable harm -- had given the group some hope.

"The ECtHR’s decision is a strong argument and a powerful instrument. In this particular case it created the pressure we needed to increase the chance of evacuating people," he said. 

But even as the evacuation seemed to be imminent on Friday, Lorenz said the group remained very scared and uncertain about whether they would be sent back to Turkey. "We see a lot of cases of people arriving on Greek territory, being spotted, and turned back by the authorities on these small islands in the river," he told InfoMigrants. "Are these islands on Greek or Turkish territory? It is often not clear. The two authorities are playing with people's lives like in ping-pong."

Also read: Evros frontier: A militarized no-man's land where 'no one can access migrants'

Migrants left on Evros islands

Less than a month ago a group of 30 Syrians was stranded on a tiny island in the Evros for nearly five days. Tragically a four-year-old boy who was among them drowned. Following media coverage and the mobilization of NGOs around the case, Greek authorities provided assistance to the group on March 18.

Two months earlier, 25 Syrians and four Turkish nationals were similarly stranded. Athens refused to organize their rescue, ordering them to return by their own means across the Evros to Turkey.

At that time of year such a move put the migrants at great risk. "The currents of the river are strong in winter. It is unthinkable to let people enter the water," said Natalie Gruber from Josoor, an NGO monitoring the situation at Greece's external borders.

Gruber told InfoMigrants that since 2020, Greek authorities have been leaving migrants on the islets between the two countries, rather than taking them back to the Turkish side.

Pushbacks normalized

"Pushbacks have been a constant practice since the mid-1990s," Alarm Phone’s Lorenz said. "But in the last two years we have seen a normalization of this violence. It is becoming a systematic practice."

A former Greek police officer last year confirmed to InfoMigrants that pushbacks occur frequently. "The border area is a military zone. It's not complicated, no one is watching us," he said, adding that had been doing this since the 1990s.

Greece has come under increasing pressure over pushbacks of migrants to Turkey, a practice is has consistently denied. In February 19 people who had been trying to cross the border into Greece were found frozen to death. In the same month a joint media investigation said that the Greek coast guard had a new tactic of throwing asylum seekers overboard off the Turkish coast. Greece strongly rejected the allegations.

The UNHCR said in February it had recorded 540 reported incidents of informal returns by Greece since the beginning of 2020 and it was ‘alarmed’ and ‘deeply concerned’ by the increasing violence, ill-treatment and pushbacks.

Interviews and material from an InfoMigrants article in French by Maïa Courtois published on April 1, 2022


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