THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Greece says it will work with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent to seek the body of a child who a group of asylum-seekers said had died of a scorpion sting while they were stranded for days on the Greek-Turkish border.
Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said Tuesday that the islet on the Evros River — which runs along much of the land border — where the group said the young girl’s body was, was Turkish territory.
“We will move via the International Red Cross and Red Crescent so that the child’s body can be found on the Turkish islet and can come to be buried with dignity by her family,” Mitarachi said.
Greek police said on Monday they had found 38 people — 22 men, nine women and seven children — inside Greek territory, away from the river and about four kilometers (2.5 miles) south of where the group had been reported to be stranded. Mitarachi, who on Tuesday visited the migrant reception center where the group were taken in northeastern Greece, said the 35 Syrians and three Palestinians were in good health, and that one pregnant woman among them had been taken to hospital for precautionary reasons.
Greek authorities had come under withering criticism for days after aid organizations had said a group of people was stranded in increasingly precarious conditions on an islet in the Evros river, known as the Meric in Turkish. Greek police said last week that they had chased successive reports of migrants stranded on islets in the river but had found nobody. Greece had said the coordinates given to them placed the group in Turkey, not Greece.
Late Monday, Turkish authorities said a search mission had been launched following media and social media reports that 39 irregular migrants were trapped on an islet in the river.
The governor’s office for the border province of Edirne said nobody was found after a four-day search by Turkey’s emergency agency AFAD, and by border units in the area corresponding to coordinates given for the islet.
“A search activity was carried out and no immigrant or group of immigrants was found,” the statement said.
The head of the Greek Council for Refugees, Vassilis Papadopoulos, said his group first heard about the migrants in mid-July. He said about 50 people had allegedly crossed to the Greek side but were then forced back to Turkey. Migrants also told his organization that Turkish authorities allegedly returned them to one islet after another, until they ended up stuck on a Greek islet mid-river.
Speaking from northeastern Greece on Tuesday, Mitarachi said the group told Greek authorities they had entered Greek territory on Aug. 14 and hid for a day before sending their location details. He said the migrants told Greek authorities they had been taken to the river by Turkish authorities, who had forced them to attempt the crossing to Greece.
“Officially the Turkish authorities arrested these migrants within Turkey, they did not give them the right to apply for international protection, as Turkey is bound to do by international law,” Mitarachi said. “To the contrary, the Turkish gendarmerie brought them to the banks of the Evros and, with the threat of the use of violence, pressured them to come to Greece.”
Thousands of people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa try to cross into Greece from Turkey each year, hoping for a better life in Europe. Greece denies that it carries out pushbacks — summarily deporting those who reach its territory back to Turkey without allowing them to request asylum — both at sea and across the Evros River, despite persistent allegations from both rights organizations and migrants themselves. Pushbacks are illegal under international law.
Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report
Costas Kantouris, The Associated Press