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UNCHR spokesperson says they are investigating the death of 19 migrants on Turkish-Greek border

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United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Shabia Mantoo on Thursday said they are investigating the circumstances surrounding 19 migrants who froze to death after being stripped of some of their clothes and pushed back by Greek border guards, the Stockholm Center for Freedom reported.

Speaking to the state-run Anadolu news agency (AA), Mantoo added that UNHCR was “deeply saddened and shocked” by the incident and that they were following up on the deaths with all parties concerned.

Emphasizing that she was “heartbroken” over the deaths, Mantoo said migrant lives must be protected. “We call for an urgent investigation. We reiterate our call to ensure that the lives, rights, safety, and well-being of all refugees and migrants are protected and put first,” she said.

The death of the migrants was announced by the Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on Wednesday, who shared blurred images showing bodies lying by the side on the road, saying they were taken near Turkey’s western border town of İpsala.

Greece has been in the throes of Europe’s biggest migration crisis since 2015, when more than a million asylum seekers, mainly Syrians, streamed into neighboring Turkey, making the crossing into Greece and on to other parts of Europe.

In early 2020 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lifted all border controls, giving a green light to millions of refugees trapped in Turkey to flee to Europe through Greece. The government in Athens responded by invoking special powers, allowing it to block what it called an enemy invasion.

According to data collected by The Guardian based on reports from United Nations agencies as well as the databases of civil society organizations, European countries pushed back 40,000 migrants, forcibly in most cases, between January 2020 and May 2021, and more than 2,000 migrants died during these pushbacks.

The pushback policy was supported by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) and has become systematic as the migrants, including children, who escaped wars were sent back, the daily reported.

A total of 6,230 pushbacks by Greece took place between January 2020 and May 2021, according to a report by the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN).

A report by Amnesty International published in early June detailed the practices of Greek border forces of violently and illegally detaining groups of refugees and migrants before summarily returning them to Turkey, in a breach of the country’s human rights obligations under EU and international law.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and its leader and President Erdoğan are also at the center of criticism for using refugees as bargaining chips in Turkey’s relations with Europe.

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