ATHENS, Greece — Greece's outgoing prime minister says he has ordered a probe into a report that authorities illegally deported a group of migrants who had reached an eastern Aegean island from Turkey, allegedly leaving them on a raft at sea for Turkish authorities to pick up.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis — who will be replaced Thursday by caretaker Prime Minister Ioannis Sarmas, a senior judge, ahead of elections on June 25 — strongly denied that Greece has an official policy of returning newly arrived migrants to Turkey. Such illegal deportations are known as pushbacks.
In an interview with CNN late Tuesday, Mitsotakis said that he takes the alleged incident reported by the New York Times “very seriously.”
“It is already being investigated (by) my government,” he said. “I have made numerous times the distinction between (the reported pushback), which is a completely unacceptable practice, and between our obligation, which is … intercepting (migrants) on our sea border with Turkey and then asking for the Turkish coast guard to come and pick these people up.”
Greece is a major entry point for migrants seeking a better life in the European Union — most entering illegally from Turkey in unseaworthy boats provided by smuggling gangs. Mitsotakis' government has tightened patrols, significantly reducing arrivals, but has been repeatedly accused by human rights groups — and Turkish officials — of pushbacks. Athens steadily denies these claims.
Mitsotakis on Tuesday accused the Turkish coast guard of “push-forwards,” claiming that they “aggressively push desperate people on inflatable boats … to sea and (push) them into out territorial waters.”
The New York Times report was based on a video provided by an activist and made public two days before Greece's parliamentary election on Sunday — which Mitsotakis' center-right party won with a huge margin. But he will have to seek a new election in just over a month, because the electoral law didn't give him a governing majority.
The report alleged that in early April migrants were brought by van to a Lesbos beach and taken by speedboat to a coast guard vessel. The coast guard allegedly left the migrants on a raft at sea from which they were picked up by the Turkish coast guard and taken back to Turkey.
Ylva Johansson, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, on Tuesday said the EU has formally asked Athens to be “fully and independently” investigate the incident.
“It is necessary that proper follow-up is taken by Greek authorities,” she said, adding that the EU's executive branch “stands ready to take formal steps, as appropriate.”
Commission spokesperson Anitta Hipper said Monday that the EU border agency, Frontex, which helps Greece patrol its eastern sea borders, has rights officers who can help support an independent investigation.
“So far, we understand that they have not been able to identify this specific incident, but of course they can follow up on any serious incidents reported that have been filed,” she said.
Greece's coast guard has not responded to an AP request for comment on the new pushback allegations.
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