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Turkey refugee crisis: Greek island denies entry to asylum seekers, says rights group

Human Rights Watch calls for Greece to stop turning back asylum seekers while monitoring group blocked from waters off Lesbos
Thousands of refugees have tried to reach Greece by sea and land in 2020 (Reuters)

Greece has denied more than 600 asylum seekers entry to the island of Lesbos and detained a similar number since the beginning of March, Human Rights Watch said on Friday. 

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At least 189 have been kept in "unacceptable conditions", the NGO reported, while more than 400 were moved to a centre near Athens, where their conditions are unknown. 

Greece imposed a month-long suspension on asylum entry on 1 March, after Turkey announced it would no longer prevent refugees and migrants leaving for Europe, as it had done since striking a deal with the EU in 2016. 

Belkis Wille, Human Rights Watch's senior crisis and conflict researcher, said: “For up to two weeks, the authorities have been holding women, men and children - many of them fleeing war and persecution - in the open in cold temperatures, denying their right to seek asylum and preventing them from getting the humanitarian and legal assistance they need and are entitled to."

The group quoted witnesses who said that newly arrived asylum seekers have been living in cramped tents without access to water or toilets and have been prevented from moving by Greek police. 

Human Rights Watch called for Greece to resume the asylum process. 

Turkey and Europe playing 'dangerous game'

More than 5,000 refugees - mostly from Afghanistan and Syria - and migrants have arrived in Greece by sea during 2020, according to the UN's refugee agency UNHCR. 

On Monday, a child died when a fire broke out in a refugee camp on Lesbos, which is designed for 3,000 people but currently housing almost 20,000. 

Greek authorities have been accused of using force against refugees and migrants approaching by both sea and land. Footage shows the coastguard pushing back boats and firing into the nearby water.

Monitoring mission Mare Liberum said it had been prevented by Greek authorities from entering the waters around Lesbos, warning that this could allow more pushbacks by the coastguard.

Refugees who tried to enter Greece through the land border also accused its authorities of beating them, confiscating their belongings and then sending them back to Turkey, according to Turkish broadcaster TRT. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with European leaders this week about the possibility of a new deal. 

Refugee rights groups have criticised both Turkey and the EU for their stances on the crisis. "Turkey and Europe are playing a dangerous game with people’s lives and give further impetus to fascist groups to carry out attacks on migrants and supporters," said rescue group Alarm Phone.