ISTANBUL — Twelve migrants died on Wednesday in Turkey, most of them found with little clothing in a freezing field near the border with Greece, according to several Turkish officials.
A Turkish government minister said they froze to death and accused Greek border guards of stripping the migrants and forcing them back across the frontier before they died.
The Greek migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, said the deaths were a tragedy but denied the Turkish accusations, calling them “false propaganda.”
Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, said in a Twitter post written in English: “Twelve of the 22 migrants pushed back by Greek Border Units, stripped off from their clothes and shoes, have frozen to death.”
He added that the European Union was “remediless, weak and void of humane feelings,” calling the Greek border guards thugs.
Greece has always denied pushing migrants back after they have crossed from Turkey, even after the United Nations documented such cases.
“These migrants never made it to the border,” Mr. Mitarachi, who was in Lille, France, for an informal E.U. summit on migration, said in a statement. “Any suggestion they did, or indeed were pushed back into Turkey, is utter nonsense.”
Turkey is a major route for migrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East trying to reach European countries and since 2015, when more than a million migrants crossed into Europe, they have been traveling via Greece. Some come by sea using dinghies and reach Greek islands just miles from Turkey’s shores. Others try to sneak across the land border, which is demarcated by a river.
For more than a year, Greece has been taking tougher measures to keep migrants out. It built a fence and policed the land border, forcing migrants who came from Turkey back across the river. Greek authorities have also towed migrants arriving by sea back into Turkish waters.
Relations between Turkey and Greece are frequently strained, but refugee officials from the United Nations and other international organizations have also criticized Greece for the pushbacks, which are illegal under international law and which they say place migrants at risk.
Four Turkish officials confirmed that the 12 migrants had died and that they appeared to have frozen to death.
Mr. Soylu, the Turkish interior minister, posted blurred pictures of eight men lying beside a muddy road, some without shirts and others in shorts. He said their bodies were found near the Turkish border town of Ipsala.
In his tweet, the minister described the 12 migrants who died as part of a larger group of 22. The fate of the other 10 was not immediately clear.
This area, along with most of the country, was hit by a harsh snowstorm and freezing temperatures last week, though the cold snap had eased in recent days.
The mayor of Ipsala, Abdullah Naci Unsal, said these migrants had probably died overnight between Tuesday and Wednesday. The governor’s office for the Turkish province of Edirne, which borders Greece, said in a statement that 11 of the migrants were found frozen to death and another died later after being taken to a hospital.
Emergency units and security forces were still scanning the area for more migrants, the statement said.
The Ipsala mayor said pushbacks from Greece — often at night — had increased since 2020, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that he was opening the border gates to refugees.
“It was raining last night,” he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. Temperatures in the area could fall to freezing point, he added, noting that it would feel even colder if a person were wet.
“They are generally deported at night,” he said. “They gather them there, take everything they have, phones and so on, throw their clothes into the water and then push them back,” he said of the Greek border guards.
The border area is agricultural, crisscrossed with canals and the Evros River, and migrants frequently get soaked while trying to cross. Migrants die almost every week while attempting to cross the border or being pushed back, the mayor said. Others drown in the river and are swept out to sea.
International refugee officials have drawn attention to cases of migrants, among them Syrians and Afghans, who have been detained in Greece, robbed of their belongings, and sometimes stripped to their underwear before being forced back across the river that divides the two countries. Some have described in interviews being beaten and detained by border guards and police officers, or by groups of men in plain clothes.
Turkey is host to more than four million refugees, the majority of them Syrians, but also including several hundred thousand Afghans. In 2020, Mr. Erdogan announced he was opening the borders for migrants to enter Europe, saying that his country could no longer handle the huge numbers of people fleeing regional wars.
He accused European leaders of failing to keep their promise to help Turkey bear the load of hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees. The European Union agreed a deal with Turkey in 2016 to provide 6 billion euros, about $6.7 billion, over several years to control the flows of migrants and settle them in Turkey.
Greece has accused Turkey of using the migrants for political leverage in its dealings with the European Union and took measures to strengthen its border controls. The numbers of migrants arriving in Greece have declined in the last two years, but the number arriving in Turkey has continued to rise.
Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from Athens.