PIRAEUS, Greece (AP) — Greek authorities have prevented thousands of migrants from entering Greece clandestinely by sea this year despite a recent lack of cooperation from the Turkish coast guard, the country’s shipping minister said Wednesday.
Giannis Plakiotakis, whose ministry is also in charge of the coast guard, said arrivals of asylum-seekers were down 84% since March 1, compared to the same period last year, while the reduction in the month of August stood at nearly 95% compared to August 2019.
“Since the start of the year, the entry of more than 10,000 people has been prevented,” Plakiotakis said during a news conference. In August alone, he said, “we had 68 cases of prevention and we succeeded in 3,000 people not entering our country.”
This, he said, was achieved despite the Turkish coast guard not responding to appeals by the Greek coast guard to stop migrant boats from leaving Turkish waters. He also accused Turkey’s coast guard of actively escorting the boats to the edge of Greek territorial waters.
“There are cases where (the Turkish coast guard) is accompanying boats with refugees and migrants to our borders and … trying to create problems,” he said.
He would not elaborate on how the boats were prevented from entering Greek waters, which also mark the southeastern border of the European Union. But he stressed the Greek coast guard “operates based on international law and international legality, based on the rules of engagement at sea, and … with complete respect for human dignity and of course for human life.”
Aid agencies have called on Greek authorities to investigate press reports of alleged pushbacks at sea. Greek officials, including Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, have vehemently denied the coast guard engages in the practice, whereby those arriving inside a nation’s territorial waters would be summarily returned without being given the chance to apply for asylum.
The UN refugee agency said on Aug. 21 it was “deeply concerned by an increasing number of credible reports indicating that men, women and children may have been informally returned to Turkey immediately after reaching Greek soil or territorial waters in recent months.”
The agency called on Greece to “seriously investigate” the reports.
“UNHCR fully respects the legitimate right of states to control their borders and recognizes the challenges posed by mixed migration movements at the external borders of the EU,” it said. “However, states must guarantee and safeguard the rights of those seeking international protection in accordance with national, European and international law.”
According to UNHCR figures, 11,500 asylum-seekers have reached Greece this year. The total number of arrivals by sea and land in all of 2019 was about 75,000.
Greece has beefed up patrols along the land and sea border with Turkey, particularly after Ankara sent thousands of migrants to the land border in March, saying its own frontier to the European Union was open for anyone wanting to head into the EU.
The government has insisted it has the right to protect the country’s borders from people attempting to enter clandestinely. The European border patrol agency Frontex is also assisting in patrolling Greece’s eastern border, with 13 boats, four planes and one helicopter, as well as 650 officers and 72 patrol cars.