Greek authorities have denied knowledge of an alleged incident in which Greek officials threw illegal immigrants into the Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey. On Tuesday morning, some 31 illegals were plucked out of the sea near the Turkish coastal city of Izmir. They claimed that the Greek Coast Guard had thrown them into the water. They did so, said one survivor, "without even asking if we could swim," according to Turkey's state-owned Anatolia news agency. Six people have reportedly drowned; three are missing.
Greek officials denied the charges in general terms. "We never throw people into the sea," said Haris Bournias, a Greek Coast Guard commander on the island of Chios. Turkey's coastline is a major transit area for illegal immigrants trying to reach Europe, and Bournias said smugglers regularly set immigrants adrift in little boats without lights. "Many people drown that way in the straits," said Bournias, and in fact early reports in the Turkish media claimed the survivors had washed ashore after their boat sank off the Turkish coast.
Still, on Wednesday Turkey's Foreign Ministry lodged an official complaint through diplomatic channels in Athens. "Greek authorities have been increasingly dumping some groups of illegal migrants in Turkish waters in violation of" a bilateral agreement to return them, said ministry spokesman Namik Tan in a statement, adding that "the mentioned practice cannot continue."
Refugees from Africa and the Middle East
According to reports, the survivors included Palestinians, Lebanese, Tunisians, Iraqis and one Algerian. Residents on the coast of Izmir had called the Turkish Coast Guard on Tuesday morning after being awakened by barking dogs and cries for help. The suvivors claimed that they had set off from Izmir province in a boat and landed on Chios. But they were captured by uniformed Greeks who placed them on a Coast Guard ship that carried them back toward Izmir, where they were tossed into the sea. "Two of our friends drowned in front of our eyes," Muhammedi Alti, a Lebanese national, told the Anatolia news agency. "I still can't believe what we have lived through ... We had thought that human rights would be more valuable in Europe."
The story couldn't be independently verified. An official from the Merchant Marine Ministry in Greece told the Associated Press that the incident may have been "a case of deterrence, when the (Greek) Coast Guard prevents a vessel with illegal immigrants from entering Greek waters and calls the Turkish Coast Guard to escort it back."
The Turkish Coast Guard, however, said it had not been contacted by the Greek Coast Guard. Greece's foreign and merchant marine ministries said they had no knowledge of the incident. The United Nations refugee agency said it will investigate the six deaths.
Illegal immigration has long been a source of tension between Turkey and Greece. Greek foreign ministry spokesman Giorgos Koumoutsakos was careful to point out that Turkey hasn't been complying with a bilateral agreement that allows Greece to send back illegal migrants who entered from Turkey. Koumoutsakos said that over the last four years, "Greece has made 22,000 repatriation requests," under the bilateral agreement with Turkey, "and only 1,400 have been accepted -- 6 percent ... The numbers speak for themselves."