Wet and shaken, women and children were pulled aboard the Turkish patrol boat first, then the men and more children.
A 7-year-old girl in striped leggings, Heliah Nazari, shivered uncontrollably as she was set down on the deck. An older woman retched into a plastic bag.
They were two of 20 asylum-seekers from Afghanistan who had been drifting in the dark, abandoned in rudderless rafts for four hours before the Turkish coast guard reached them.
Just hours earlier they had been resting in a forest on the Greek island of Lesbos when they were caught by Greek police officers who confiscated their documents, money and cellphones and ferried them out to sea.
“They kicked us all, with their feet, even the children, women, men and everyone,” said Ashraf Salih, 21, recounting their story. “They did not say anything, they just left us. They weren’t humane at all.”
Turkish coast guard officials described it as a clear case — rarely witnessed by journalists — of the illegal pushbacks that have now become a regular feature of the dangerous game of cat and mouse between the two countries over thousands of migrants who continue to attempt the sea crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands as a way into Europe.
Since a mutual agreement broke down last year, Turkey and Greece have been at loggerheads over how to deal with the continuing flow of migrants along one of the most frequented routes used since the mass movement boomed in 2015.
Then, one million migrants, mostly Syrians fleeing the war in their country, led the surge into Europe. The flow is much reduced — 40,000 have arrived by sea into Europe so far this year — but it is now dominated by Afghans, raising fears that the escalating conflict there and the US withdrawal of troops could bring larger numbers.
For more than a year, Turkey has turned a blind eye to the migrants, allowing them to try the sea crossing to Greece. That country has resorted to expelling migrants forcibly, disabling their boats and pushing them back to Turkey when they are caught at sea.
Increasingly, Greece is even removing asylum-seekers who have reached its islands, forcing them into life rafts and towing them into Turkish waters, as the compassion many Greeks had shown during earlier waves of migration has given way to anger and exhaustion.
The tactic of so-called pushbacks has been roundly denounced by refugee organizations and European officials as a violation of international law and of fundamental European values. The Greek government denies that it has pushed back any migrants while insisting on its right to protect its borders.
“Numerous cases have been investigated, including by the European Union,” Notis Mitarachi, minister for migration and asylum in Greece, said last week, “and reports have found no evidence of any breach of EU fundamental rights.”
Philippe Leclerc, head of the United Nations refugee agency in Turkey, said his office had presented evidence, including “accounts of violence and family separations” to the Greek ombudsman, requesting the cases be investigated, without result.
The two countries are at an impasse, with Turkey demanding that Greece end the pushbacks first, and Greece demanding that Turkey first take back 1,400 migrants whose asylum requests have been rejected, Leclerc said.
President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been widely accused of precipitating the crisis, when in February last year he announced he was opening his country’s borders for migrants to travel to Europe.
Turkish officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak to the news media, said the step was taken to draw world attention to Turkey’s own burden in hosting some four million asylum-seekers from other nations’ wars — more than 3.6 million Syrians, along with 400,000 other people from Afghanistan, Asia and the Middle East. It is the single largest refugee community in the world and has taken over the whole suburbs of Istanbul and the capital, Ankara.
But the action was interpreted in Greece as a kind of blackmail to extort money and other concessions from the European Union on a range of issues.
It led to clashes between migrants and Greek border guards on the Turkish-Greek border and caused the conservative Greek government to adopt aggressive new measures against migrants, including the pushbacks.
Greece has struggled to handle the influx of more than 100,000 asylum cases and overcrowded refugee camps on its islands while other European countries have done little to share the burden.
But Turkish officials stress that the numbers Greece is handling are nothing compared with the scale of the strain on Turkey. Resentment against the migrants in Turkey has grown as economic conditions have worsened, threatening Erdogan’s political standing. He, in turn, has railed against wealthier states shirking their responsibilities toward the world’s refugees and not doing enough to end the conflicts that cause them to flee.
Frustrated after more than a year of picking up thousands of migrants left by their Greek counterparts, the Turkish coast guard invited journalists recently on a patrol boat to witness what they said were the Greek violations.
“It is obvious they were pushed back,” Senior Lt. Cmdr. Sadun Ozdemir, the Northern Aegean group commander of the Turkish coast guard, said after his crew had rescued the 20 Afghans. “They did not come from the sky.”
He said the Greek vessel had probably towed the rafts deep into Turkish territorial waters before cutting them adrift, which he said was an additional violation.
One raft was overloaded and the thin bottom leaking, he said. “That boat could have sunk in one or two minutes, and possibly they do not know how to swim and they could have drowned.”
As often happens, the Turkish crew received an email from their Greek counterparts that migrants were drifting in the area — a seeming effort by the Greeks to mitigate the loss of life but something the Turks say is an implicit sign of Greek culpability.
The pushbacks also damage relations between the Greek and Turkish coast guards and interfere with work against drug and people trafficking, Ozdemir said.
Commercial ships as well as navy and coast guard vessels pass through the northern Aegean and could easily hit the small rafts and boats, which have no lights or means of navigation, he added.
“This thing we call ‘pushback’ in English is a very innocent expression,” he said. But the action was anything but, he said, hoping to convey “how desperate the situation is.”