From the migrant exit point in Igoumenitsa, I made my way to Evros, the largest entry point for illegal immigration into Greece. I drove ten hours along the newly constructed Egnatia highway to Orestiada, a border town in the northeastern most corner of Greece. The border with Turkey had seen an exponential increase in migrant crossings in the last year as Spain and Italy tightened their border controls and human traffickers had discovered a new route across the 13-kilometer Greek-Turkish land border, as well as across the nearby Evros River which runs from the Rila mountains in Bulgaria and empties into the Aegean Sea. In 2010, 90 percent of illegal immigrants entered Europe through Greece – approximately 50,000. Though that number began to shrink due to better border controls, dozens still cross every night with the help of traffickers who now mostly use the river.
Human traffickers in the area are mostly of Turkish origin given that the bulk of migrants arrive straight from their country of origin to Turkey before entering Europe due to relaxed visa restrictions. Many traffickers work for larger crime syndicates and are simply middle-men who labor on the front lines to aid in the river crossing. Often migrants have paid thousands of euros to traffickers to make the crossing and are penniless when they arrive on the riverbank in Greece. Before crossing, they are instructed to discard any documents that show their identity or place of origin to confound Greek and European authorities and make future deportation nearly impossible.
Typically, migrants are packed into makeshift rafts or rubber boats and must paddle either by themselves or with the help of traffickers across the fast flowing river. Pregnant women, children, families and single men, many of whom do not even know they are entering Greece (they simply know the other side of the river is “Europe”), make the journey every night, only to be arrested by Greek police on the other side of the river. They are usually detained for a few weeks or months before they are released with papers that require them to check-in with Greek authorities in order to either leave the country or apply for asylum. Nearly all migrants believe this is a necessary but temporary step in beginning their new lives somewhere else in Europe – little do most of the new arrivals know the near impossible chance that they will ever be able to leave Greece.
While in Athens, I met Rose, a 27-year-old single mother who had arrived in Greece eight and a half months pregnant from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I sat with her one afternoon with her baby in her arms as she described her harrowing journey as a pregnant woman through Turkey and into Greece.
“We went through forest after forest. There were 17 of us from Africa,” she said in French. “And then they told me to get in a boat and cross this river and Europe would be on the other side.”
Rose was detained and then hospitalized to have her child. She now lives in a shelter run by Medecins du Monde in Athens and says that she regrets her decision to leave Congo where she was a seamstress.
In Orestiada, I met one government official after another who basically said the same thing: the problem was bad, it has improved slightly since the European Union moved in to help, but traffickers continue to find holes in border patrols. Police and local residents had been unprepared for the massive influx of migrants into this relatively small town. For police, protecting the borders from streams of immigrants also began to look like a game of whack-a-mole: try to guard one area and the problem pops up in another. For instance, just as the EU and Greek border authorities bolstered their presence on the land border near Orestiada, migrant crossings increased exponentially at the Southern end of the border with Turkey closer to the Aegean Sea.
The overall message from those I spoke with in Evros: this is not a problem with policing but a problem with policy, both in Greece and in Europe. Bureaucratic wrangling due to EU and Greek policies meant that rarely is anybody sent back to their country of origin despite the country’s inability to properly feed, cloth, provide work for and integrate new arrivals.
I spent nearly a week in the town of Orestiada. It was a surprisingly lively town that was more typically Greek in many ways than towns I had passed through the region of Thrace where Evros is a sub-region. This, I imagined, was likely due to the fact that many of those in Orestiada were Greeks evicted from Turkey in the 1920s and were thus more attached to their Hellenic heritage. Speaking with locals, I was struck by the sense of doom and foreboding. Most had sympathy for the new arrivals and spoke of their experiences with migrants whom they tried to help. But there was a feeling that Greece had lost control of the situation and I regularly heard variations on the sentiment: “they [immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East] are coming to Greece but we have nothing more to give them. We are also suffering here and can’t find work!”
Orestiada sits a few dozen kilometers away from the Turkish border and the nearby Turkish town of Edirne (formerly Adrianople). It is home to the central police station of the region, where migrants are brought and processed after being captured by Greek authorities. During the strongest wave of migrants in 2010, locals told me that dozens, if not hundreds, of mostly young foreign men would wander through the town each day looking to be detained by police (they knew they would later be released). I later asked the chief of police in Orestiada about how locals of this tiny town felt about this. A gruff, no-nonsense man, the chief had a strange tic that saw him spit air into his clinched fingers as if about to turn a page. When I asked him he sighed and said that Orestiada had somehow become a crossroads for all the problems in the world. Regrettably it seemed.
On my way back to Athens I stopped in Sidiro, a tiny Muslim town in central Evros, home to a makeshift graveyard where migrants who died during the river crossing are buried. A local resident drove me up the winding dirt road to a large metal fence. Inside the fence were mounds of dirt – unmarked graves where dozens of men, women and children from Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, and all over Africa are buried. A local Muslim religious leader says that he has records of where each person is buried but those I spoke to thought it was unlikely that anyone would ever return to see the burial spot of a family member or loved one. These people were essentially gone without a trace. Over the rolling hills to the west, I could hear thunder in the distance. The rain began to soak the rocky soil as I made my way back to the car.
Before leaving the region I stopped at the bus station in Alexandroupoli, where I was told migrants walk from Orestiada to get the bus to Athens (a two day walk). Sure enough, there were at least two-dozen new arrivals waiting for the bus to Athens. To my surprise, they were smiling and laughing. They looked hopeful, as if they had finally finished their long, hellish journey. I struck up a conversation with a group of young men from Mauritania and Senegal. Over coffee we spoke about their journey from Africa, their hopes and their dreams of where they might one day end up.
Abass, a young-Mauritanian who had worked odd jobs in his home country said he was going to Belgium to make money to provide for his family at home who were counting on him to succeed in Europe. He seemed unaware of the struggle he would soon face and I did not have the heart to talk about what I had seen in Igoumenitsa – thousands of migrants who were trapped, eating from rubbish bins, their fate totally uncertain.
He sipped his coffee and then shared it with several others. He said he had not had a warm drink in months. When I pressed him further about the details of his journey he smiled but did not speak. I could tell that he never wanted to relive the brutal and dehumanizing things that he had just experienced. He had made it to Europe and that was all that mattered. Life would be easier now – or so he thought. With no belongings, hope and his faith in God were all he had left. After hours of conversation I got up to leave. We embraced and exchanged contact information, promising to meet up in Athens inshallah.