Humanitarian drama at the Greek-Turkish border
Everything began on July 14. On that day, a group of Syrian refugees who were in Evros/Meriç attempted to gain entry into Europe. The group sought refuge in an islet east of the community of Kissari and, according to articles published by the Greek opposition press, were violently pushed back to Turkey by the Greek authorities. Based on the refugees' own accounts they were detained by the Greek police until the end of July. As they describe, they were held for hours at a detention facility on the Greek side of the Evros river and were violently treated by the authorities before being drove back to Turkey.
Once in Turkey, the refugees were held at a detention facility. There, they were threatened with extradition back to Syria unless they agreed to cross the Greek-Turkish border once more. Under the threat from the Turkish authorities, the refugees returned to the islet, which is on the Turkish-Greek border.
The Greek authorities put off the required search and rescue effort for days despite the international attention and the reactions in Greece. The conservative New Democracy government ignored first, the European Court of Human Rights' decision second, the reaction of the main opposition party Syriza which submitted a parliamentary question and third, the calls of Amnesty International which launched an urgent petition collection campaign.
Meanwhile, Maria A., a five-year-old Syrian girl, tragically died after being stung by a scorpion. Maria's body was kept by her parents in the river's icy waters for days with the hope of giving her a proper burial once they were rescued. As days passed by, the parents of the unfortunate girl buried her body on the island. The refugees claim that other people from their group have died because of the illegal activities of Greek and Turkish authorities during their stay in Evros.
The long-delayed rescue operation
After a remarkable delay and in response to international and domestic pressure the Greek authorities "located" the refugees stranded at Evros/Meriç. Earlier, the Hellenic Police (ELAS) had stated in an announcement that it could not locate the refugees and denied therefore that they were in Greek territory.
In a new announcement, ELAS stated that "Following new information and extensive searches, a group of illegal immigrants reportedly from Syria, comprising 22 men, 9 women, and 7 children, one of whom is pregnant, was discovered. It should be noted that this particular point is approximately 4 kilometres south, of the coordinates outside Greek territory, that were originally announced a few days ago as the position (of the group). From the moment they were discovered, ELAS forces and all other state services rushed to their aid to care for the migrants, provide them with food and water, and transfer them to a temporary shelter".
Notis Mitarakis, Greece's Minister of Migration and Asylum, stated on Twitter that the refugees are in good health and that the pregnant woman has been transferred to a hospital.
Greece embarrassed internationally
According to Greece's opposition press, the new incident in Evros will tarnish the neighbouring country's image at the European and international levels. The official newspaper of the main opposition party Syriza, 'Avgi,' published an article stating that "new serious questions are raised by the statement of the Minister of Immigration and Asylum about the 38 refugees who were finally identified by Greek police."
According to the 'Avgi,' Notis Mitarakis admitted that foreign journalists had informed the Greek government that the 38 refugees were in Greek territory. According to him, as soon as the government was informed by foreign journalists that the refugees were 4 kilometres from the islet, Greek police rushed to the scene to help and transport them.
Mitarakis argued that Turkey should have provided international protection to the refugees and disputed that they had been in Evros since 14 July. Continuing, he mentioned that the seven children located were in good health and that "if anyone died on Turkish soil, we don't know."
"The unburied child will be remembered forever"
The Syrian refugee drama in Evros has elicited powerful reactions from large segments of Greek society. "Rivers are veins of life for most people, once worshipped as deities." (However, in modern times) rivers are politicised and are painted in positive or negative colors. (In Evros' two banks), many people suffered and two modern states were built," says Theodora Tzakri, MP for Pella and member of Syriza-Progressive Alliance's Political Secretariat.
The Greek opposition MP reminds us that Greece and Turkey attempted to "bridge" Evros in the twentieth century. The governments of the two countries attempted to establish communication and cooperation channels based on international standards. This effort is now a distant memory, as the Greek and Turkish governments attempt today to politicise both Evros and the refugee issues.
"Everything will be forgotten, Mr. Mitsotakis, Mr. Erdogan, me, you. But the unburied child on the islet that no one wanted, with two states on either side waiting for more children’s deaths before they offer help, (that) will be remembered forever!" stresses the Greek politician.
"Breaking and violating European, international and Greek law"
In the same vein, Greek opposition party Mera25 stated that "When Turkey claims a strip of land, we are supposedly ready to go to war. But if there are refugees on it, we 'give it away' generously and unilaterally. This is a disgrace, magnified to the point of arrogance when one considers that the same Prime Minister arbitrarily elevates refugees to the level of "national threat" and "invaders" in order to justify the destruction of democracy."
Continuing, Secretary General of Mera25 and former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, mentioned that "For the past week, 40 Syrian refugees, including 15 children, have been left on an island in Evros without access to water, food, or medical care. Despite injunctions issued by the European Court of Human Rights ordering the Greek authorities to stop the illegal pushbacks and provide immediate humanitarian help (water, food, medical care, etc.), the Greek authorities have not rescued the refugees and do not comply with the relevant decisions, breaking and violating European, international, and Greek law".
Following the latest news about the developments in Evros, the opposition party issued a statement attaching blame to Mitsotakis’ government. "When the UNHCR asks our country to do the right thing, we get ridiculous responses from the Minister of Migration and Asylum. All the while, a 5-year-old girl died helplessly from a scorpion sting on the island, and her mother is attempting to preserve her body for burial. This is Kyriakos Mitsotakis' extreme-right state."
*Dr Nikolaos Stelgias was born in Istanbul. He is an independent researcher, writer, historian and journalist. His doctorate is in the field of the modern Turkish political system (Panteion University, 2011). His latest book “The Ailing Turkish Democracy” was published by the Cambridge Scholars Publication in 2020. Dr. Stelgias was a correspondent of the newspaper "Kathimerini (Cyprus edition)" for Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot community from 2009 to 2021. Currently, Dr. Stelgias works at the Cyprus News Agency. Dr. Stelgias publishes in Turkish news articles and analyses on Cyprus and Greece on the news website 'Duvar".