Writing by Patrick Keddie
The Greek authorities, with support from the EU agency Frontex, have drastically reduced the numbers of migrants reaching the Greek mainland or islands by sea. Since 2010, the vast majority of migrants have instead arrived in the country via the border with Turkey, often paying traffickers thousands of dollars to cross the dangerous Evros River to enter Greece. According to the UNHCR, more than 80% of all irregular entries into the EU now cross this border.
Migrants often cross the wide river in overcrowded boats or attempt to wade or swim across despite the fast-flowing and eddying currents, gluey mud, and a riverbed which shelves unpredictably. Last year at least 22 people died trying to cross the river. This year there have been eight confirmed deaths and eight people remain missing, according to information recorded by the Thessaloniki-based activist group The Group of Migrants and Refugees.
Those who die in this bleak, militarised borderland are often undocumented and unidentifiable. The unknown people are buried in a cemetery in the small village of Sidero by the Mufti Serif Damadoglou in a plot of land up a rutted, muddy track at the edge of the village. Small mounds of earth and stones indicate unlabelled graves. There are 300 unknown migrants buried in the cemetery, according to Damadoglou. He informed us that the most recent burial took place in February this year and that they buried an unknown Iranian woman with her son in January.
Crossing the River
We visited the small border town of Soufli, 60km from Alexandroupolis, which is next to the River Evros and is a major crossing point for migrants coming into Greece. The rail network runs through Soufli, allowing migrants to jump on the train at the station to begin the journey to Athens or Thessaloniki. When we arrived early one morning the station was empty but a wet bundle of discarded clothes indicated that migrants had been there recently.
The border with Turkey is a few hundred metres away from the station, reached by a small scramble over an embankment. There is no barbed wire or fences as you might expect at a border and the Greek military watchtowers stand empty. The Turkish side of the river is mostly a thicket of trees, providing cover for those wanting to cross. Torn clothing, lifejackets and rubber dinghy’s remain snagged in the branches along the Greek side of the river bank. The atmosphere is peaceful but eerie with the knowledge of the deaths and calamities that have occurred at the river.
As we made our way down the river we unexpectedly came across a group of migrants from Somalia who had just made the crossing in a tiny rubber dinghy. They were damp and muddy. Many were sitting and eating – celebrating having made it across. Some couldn’t seem to believe their luck and checked with us repeatedly that they were actually in Greece, grinning broadly when it was confirmed.
Nineteen of the migrants had made it across and were waiting on the bank but nine people remained on a small island in the middle of the 100 metre-wide channel. They didn’t seem to know how to get back across the fast flowing current to reach them and some of the migrants asked if we knew how to row across.
I spoke briefly to ‘Nour’, a 30 year-old Somali woman, who had been living in Syria and left due to the violence being perpetrated by the Assad regime as it tries to crush the rebellion against its rule. She had paid a trafficker to get her across the border and described the process as “very simple”. Others claimed that they had paid traffickers 6000 euros to make the journey. They weren’t sure what they were going to do next.
We couldn’t talk for long as a Greek police officer turned up. His eyes were bloodshot, his breath reeked of alcohol and his hand shook as he lit a cigarette. The migrants allowed the dinghy to drift off as the officer radioed for reinforcements and demanded to know who they were and why we were there. We were arrested and had our cameras confiscated.
As the nine people stuck on the island shouted in English that they couldn’t swim and called for help, the Greek police yelled “Go back to Turkey” in reply. The migrants were just abandoned on the island and we weren’t able to find out what happened to them.
The migrants on the river bank were taken to the police station to be processed. At Soufli police station an officer told us that this was a relatively quiet period of the year; in the height of summer the tiny police station deals with around 100 people a day.
The migrants may be released – usually after being given a 30 day deportation notice to leave Greece, without any individual assessment of asylum cases. As a report released by German refugee rights umbrella group Pro Asyl shows, many migrants are regularly held in detention for up to six months in dirty, overcrowded and degrading conditions “deprived of basic rights…there is no legal aid, no information, no interpretation.” If released without deportation, or if they evade the authorities altogether, most migrants begin the journey to Athens or Thessaloniki by jumping on a train to Alexandroupolis.
At Alexandroupolis station we met a group of young men from Morocco and Algeria. They had spent all their money paying traffickers to cross the river. They had been sleeping rough outside the station for several days and were very hungry. Some were trying to beg for enough money to pay the 38 euros for a train to Athens.
‘Imran’ was a Moroccan man in his early twenties, with long, slick black hair poking out of a woolly hat. He had flown to Turkey from Morocco and then crossed the River Evros. He had been waiting at the station for three days trying to get enough cash to ring his parents to send him some more money, having spent everything he had to get to Greece. Imran’s plan was to get to Spain to join his father but he claimed it was far easier to get there via Turkey, Greece and Italy than attempting to cross directly from Morocco.
The Security Fence: Forcing More People to Cross the River
As the Greek authorities and Frontex continue to restrict access to Greece by sea, they are also trying to deter the huge numbers entering via the Turkish border. Most of Greece’s 200km long border with Turkey runs along the River Evros, however there is a short stretch of dry land along the border. Greece has announced plans to prevent migrants crossing this stretch by building a 10km long, 4-meter high fence topped with razor wire on its border with Turkey.
It is highly likely that this wall will simply encourage even more migrants to cross the River Evros, taking grave risks just to reach a country in which access to asylum is degrading and severely restricted, government support for migrants has collapsed and in which an increasingly belligerent anti-immigrant rhetoric is accompanied by a rising epidemic in racist attacks against migrants.
[For David Shaw’s full photo story on migrants in Greece see here]