A group of adults and children who spent a month stuck on a scorpion- and snake-infested spit of land between Greece and Turkey – and denied help by both nations – were finally taken to temporary accommodation by Greek police this week.
Among the group of nearly 40 Syrian refugees forced to seek refuge on the islet in the Evros river was a five-year-old girl, Maria, reported to have died from a scorpion sting. Her nine-year-old sister remains gravely ill.
Migration minister Notis Mitarachi said on Tuesday that Greece would try to retrieve the body of the dead girl.
The ordeal is the latest incident to highlight what Niamh Nic Carthaigh, EU policy director at the International Rescue Committee, calls a “political game of gross irresponsibility” between the two countries that is costing lives.
One of the group, Baida Al-Saleh, 27, said the Syrians arrived on the islet on 14 July. Lawyers acting on their behalf obtained an interim measure from the European court of human rights on 20 July to allow them to remain, yet days later they were forcibly pushed back to Turkey and taken into custody.
In early August they were sent back to the islet. They survived by drinking river water and eating corn and leaves, while insects bit their skin in the heat. “They are treating us like animals,” said Al-Saleh in a voice note from the islet last week.
Civil society groups have put pressure on Turkey and Greece to rescue the group. Ankara made no comment but Athens claimed it was unable to help as the islet, charted as Greek on maps, was in Turkey.
Both sides claimed to have searched for the group but found no one. The NGO Uluslararası Mülteci Hakları Derneği – which has ties to the Turkish government – said in a statement that security officers from the nearby city of Edirne came within 75 metres of the coordinates supplied by the migrants on 10 August and used a megaphone, but received no response.
The claims are disputed by lawyers and journalists, such as Giorgos Christides, who closely documented the group’s plight for the German news website Der Spiegel. They say they have collected evidence to support the group, including live locations and verified photo metadata.
In the end, the group crossed to Greece in a boat left by other migrants, fearful of a violent pushback but driven to seek help for nine-months pregnant Nor, who was in pain and bleeding.
A Greek police statement said 22 men, nine women and seven children were found, and that government services “rushed to their aid” with “food and water, and transported them to a place of temporary accommodation”.
Al-Saleh said the group were given medical care and they believe they will now be registered for asylum.
In recent months thousands have attempted to cross the Evros, dividing Turkey and Greece, taking advantage of shallow summer waters. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, reported 3,225 recorded arrivals in Greece through the land border at Evros this year.
While the Syrians’ plight is not unique, it captured the sympathy of Greeks, in part due to the children in the group.
It is feared that an increasing number of Syrians could attempt the dangerous journey to Europe as Turkey starts to implement plans, announced in May, to return a million migrants to areas of Syria under Turkish military control.
Turkey is home to the world’s largest refugee population, with 3.6 million Syrians registered there alone, and the strain of this has led to anti-immigrant sentiment. Greece has long faced accusations of carrying out violent migrant pushbacks that continue, despite an EU warning in June that Athens risks losing funding.
Louise Donovan, UNHCR spokesperson in Greece, said the agency is deeply saddened by the child’s death, and urged both countries to observe international law. “While states have the legitimate right to control their borders, this must be done in accordance with national, European and international law, with full respect for human rights, most importantly the right to life.
“The urgent humanitarian imperative to protect human life must always be prioritised,” she said.