The UN refugee agency has condemned the discovery of 92 naked people at the Evros river along Greece's border with Turkey. The agency is demanding an urgent investigation into the incident, as tensions continue to rise between the two countries.
The European Union's border agency Frontex has confirmed an incident in which 92 naked migrants were sent across the river Evros, also known as the Meriç or Maritsa, from Turkey to Greece last Friday (October 14).
Frontex officials assisted Greek border guards in rescuing the people from the river bank, Paulina Bakula, spokeswoman for the organization said on Sunday evening. The agency reported the migrants were found almost completely naked and some were visibly injured. The incident was immediately forwarded to Frontex's fundamental rights officer for investigation.
Greek minister for civil protection Takis Theodorikakos accused Turkey of instrumentalizing undocumented migrants in the latest of a series of recriminations on migration between the neighboring countries.
The incident is now at the center of rising tensions between Greece and Turkey, as the respective governments engage in mudslinging on Twitter about who is responsible for these major human rights violations.
On Monday, Greece's Minister of Migration Notis Mitarachi said he had informed the European Commission of the incident. He also announced that he would raise the topic with the United Nations during a visit to New York next week.
'Shame on civilization'
Some migrants said they were transported to the border in three vehicles belonging to Turkish authorities, where they were sent across the river in small inflatable rafts. Speaking on Greek Skai television, Theodorikakos said many of the migrants told Frontex that "three Turkish army vehicles had transferred them" to the river which acts as a natural border between the two countries.
Frontex and Greek border guards supplied the migrants with food and clothing, the border agency said. The people had allegedly traveled from Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan.
On Saturday, Mitarachi posted a disturbing image on Twitter of the group of naked migrants trying to cover their private parts as they crouched in the grass. "Turkey’s behavior towards 92 migrants whom we rescued at the borders today is a shame for civilization," Mitarachi wrote. "We expect Ankara to investigate the incident and protect, at last, its border with the EU."
Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s chief spokesperson, Fahrettin Altun criticized the publication of the graphic image "Greece once again showed the whole world that it does not even respect the dignity of these oppressed people, by publishing the photographs of the refugees it has deported."
Tensions between Greece and Turkey running high
The incident comes as relations between the two NATO members are being described as "unusually tense", after Erdoğan vowed to cut all ties with the Greek prime minister earlier this year.
Athens and Ankara both blamed each other for the incident over the weekend. The Greek minister for the protection of citizens, Takis Theodorikakos, called the situation barbaric and reminiscent of the Middle Ages. Turkey's deputy interior minister said that Greece was trying to blame Turkey for its own actions.
In a series of scathing comments on Twitter, the Turkish presidency denied any responsibility for the migrants and blamed Greece for the "inhuman" situation.
"We urge Greece to abandon its harsh treatment of refugees as soon as possible, to cease its baseless and false charges against Turkey," wrote President Erdoğan's top press aide Fahrettin Altun.
"With these futile and ridiculous efforts, Greece has shown once again to the entire world that it does not respect the dignity of refugees by posting these oppressed people's pictures it has deported after extorting their personal possessions," he added in tweets delivered in Turkish, Greek and English.
Human rights crime used as fuel for conflict
Greece has accused Turkey of increasingly weaponizing migrants, however both countries have used migration as a key conflict point amid rising political tensions.
Turkey's Deputy Interior Minister Ismail Catakli called on Greece to stop what, in a tweet, he termed its "manipulations and dishonesty."
"As you couldn't find one single case of a human rights violation by Turkey, you just seek to expose the image of your own cruelty as if Turkey did it," Catakli said on Twitter replying to a tweet by Mitarachi.
Athens regularly faces and denies accusations from NGOs and the media that it has on many occasions sought to push migrants back to Turkey illegally, sometimes using force.
Last month, Erdogan used a UN address to accuse Greece of transforming the Aegean Sea into a "cemetery" with "oppressive policies" on immigration.
Berlin-based rights group Mare Liberum tweeted: "In the Evros region, systematic human rights crimes against people on the move are committed on a daily basis by Turkey as well as Greece".
"When these crimes are publicly discussed by members of the government, it only serves to add fuel to the fire of the long conflict between Turkey and Greece, not to protect people on the move," the group added.
UN urges investigation
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said in a tweet that it was "deeply distressed" by the images of the group of migrants.
The Guardian reported that UNHCR is demanding an urgent investigation into the incident. "We are asking for a full investigation because the circumstances are not clear," said Stella Nanou, the UNHCR’s spokesperson in Athens. "We are always against degrading and cruel treatment and what we have seen is shocking."
Greece has urged Turkey to respect a 2016 deal with the European Union in which Ankara agreed to contain the flow of migrants to Europe in exchange for billions of euros in aid. Turkey says it has strengthened measures to prevent people smuggling.
Greece will soon extend a 40-kilometre fence along its northern border with Turkey to prevent migrants and refugees from entering the country.
With AFP, dpa and Reuters