Twelve refugees found frozen to death near Turkey-Greece border

Tragedy sparks war of words after Turkish interior minister accuses Greece of deliberately sending people back after stripping them of clothes.

A Turkish flag fies in blue skies near a razor wire topped border fence
Turkey and Greece have been at loggerheads for years over asylum seekers and refugees at their shared borders [File: Emrah Gurel)/AP Photo]

The partially clothed bodies of 12 people have been found inside Turkey close to the border with Greece, after they apparently froze to death.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu posted blurred images on Twitter showing the bodies lying by the roadside near the northwestern border town of Ipsala with some wearing only shorts and T-shirts despite the cold.

He said the 12 were part of a larger group that had been “pushed back” by Greece.

“12 of the 22 migrants pushed back by Greek Border Units… have frozen to death,” Soylu wrote in English, saying they had been stripped of clothes and shoes. Temperatures in the area can fall to between two and three degrees Celsius (35.6 – 37.4 Fahrenheit) at night in late January and early February.

He accused Greek border guards of thuggish behaviour and said the European Union was “weak” and inhumane.

Greece’s Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said the deaths were a “tragedy”, but that Turkey’s version of events was “false propaganda”.

“These migrants never made it to the border. Any suggestion they did, or indeed were pushed back into Turkey is utter nonsense,” Mitarachi said.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it was “horrified” by the reported deaths.

“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,” said Safa Msehli, a spokesperson for the IOM.

“We reiterate that such practices are prohibited under international law and should not happen under any circumstances,” she said. “The obligation and primacy of saving lives and prioritising the wellbeing and human rights of migrants are vital to the integrity of any border.”

Blame game

Turkey frequently accuses neighbouring Greece of illegally pushing back migrants and asylum seekers wanting to make their way into Europe across the two countries’ shared borders on foot or by boat. Greece denies allegations its actions are in breach of international law, and says it is doing its duty to protect the EU’s southeastern borders.

The EU has infuriated Turkey by largely supporting the Greek position.

But on Wednesday, the group’s Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson expressed alarm at the discovery of the 12 bodies.

“I just received the information and I must say I’m a bit shocked,” she told the AFP news agency by telephone while attending a meeting of the 27-nation bloc’s interior ministers in France.

“We have the Greek minister here, I will raise it with him and ask for clarification on this. This needs to be investigated of course.”

Greece is one of the main routes into the European Union for migrants and refugees from Africa, the Middle East and beyond, although the number of people attempting the journey has declined in recent years.

The UN refugee agency estimates that more than 2,500 people died or went missing at sea as they tried to reach Europe from North Africa and Turkey last year.

Under a 2016 deal that was recently extended, the EU provides billions of dollars in aid to Ankara in exchange for Turkey agreeing to host refugees from Syria and other countries.

There are currently nearly four million Syrian refugees in Turkey, as well as some 300,000 Afghans.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies