The banks of the Evros River, at the border between Greece and Turkey. It is dawn, and the call to prayer of the muezzin rings out in the distance. The area here is militarised and access is prohibited. Turkey is just a few dozen metres away. The temperature is around zero degrees.
They come through the foliage and branches, peering cautiously out of the shadows: they look around one last time and then they’re off, running through the fields, leaving the border far behind. They have just crossed the river. I have just entered Europe.
This time I am travelling with Algerians, but every night Afghans, Pakistanis, Nepalese, Syrians and others enter Europe illegally. Fifty five thousand irregular entries happen here ever year. This gateway to Europe has been open for three years at this point in northeastern Greece, on the border with Turkey and Bulgaria. This is the second time I have accompanied this young group of Algerians. The first time, the trafficker who was getting them across was shot by the Turkish police. “Thank God we did it this time,” one of them says. “We were waiting for four days in Istanbul before attempting the passage. During this time, the traffickers did not give us anything to eat, nothing to drink, not even a bit of water.”
“We have left Algeria because even though there are real opportunities to make a living, these are for rich men, men of power, but there is not much for the young. My dream would be to put down roots once and for all. I’d go to Paris,” says another.
One boy on crutches bears the marks of last month’s shooting. The Turkish police caught the group as they were about to pass the Evros and, in the ensuing gunfire, the trafficker was shot dead and the boy wounded in the leg. The bullet went through his tibia without causing any permanent damage. The boys were made to spend three weeks in jail. Then they tried again. And succeeded.
A few hours later, while in the centre of the village of Pitio, we are arrested by Astinomia (the Greek police), loaded onto a military truck and taken to the nearest barracks on the border. Here we will proceed with the identification and delivery, and expulsion orders will be given. The procedure has changed in recent weeks, because most of the detention area was being renovated. Earlier, migrants were kept in often overcrowded detention centres for weeks or months. Today they are released within a few hours. But the Greek government is preparing to build new centres.
The night that I participated in the passage of the nine Algerians, someone else tried to cross the border near the village of Pitio. They probably made it. The truth is that this border is porous and the Turkish and Greek Police fail to stem the flow of migrants.
Georgios Salamangas, the police chief of Orestiada, the capital of the northern region, summarises the situation: “The flow of migrants continues and is indeed growing, and Greek society is not able to sustain it,” he says. “There were more than 1,600 regular entries to the northern prefecture of Orestiada in February. The number was greater in this area last year, and the weather conditions were very bad: rain, snow and extremely cold.”
The flow of migrants is so incessant that Greece has sought assistance from Brussels. In response, 175 officers from Frontex, the European Agency for the control of borders are deployed as part of the “Poseidon Land” operation. They provide technological support, expertise for the recognition of fake documents, and a training workshop for their Greek colleagues.
The traffickers, who include Turks, Afghans and Pakistanis working in Istanbul and Izmir, run an effective operation and are always looking for new ways to cross the European borders.
One night we join a Frontex patrol. The Land Rover from Sofia reaches the top of a hill and Jankov, the Bulgarian police officer, points the infrared camera at the border area: trees, houses, fences, everything is clearly visible despite the pitch black darkness.
With these technologies, Frontex patrols are, to an extent, able to detect groups of migrants who cross the river 15km away. On average, 200 people try to cross the Evros every night.
The migrants are not just from Asia, some are even from Central America, as shown by a group of young Dominicans who crossed the border not far from the Algerian port at dawn. They tell of travelling by air from Somalia to Istanbul and proceeding from Istanbul on foot. And now, wet and semi-frozen, they tell us about their crossing of the river last night.
The Evros actually has a second, lesser known, arm in the area of Pitio. After crossing the first in the middle of the night on a dinghy, they did not realise that the second stream could be crossed on foot using a bridge.
That bridge was a few hundred metres away, but was almost completely invisible in the darkness.
So they took the plunge into the icy water, taking the tough decision to leave behind some of their clothes and other personal effects.
At the village of Castagnés, to the north on the border between Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece, we see the framework of the barrier that should be built here in a few months in the only stretch of unmarked border along the river. It is comprised of 12km of steel and barbed wire, and is 1.2 metres high. But the question that everyone is asking is: will it work? With costs running to millions of Euros, Athens has asked the European Union to recoup the money. And yet the river remains a favourite passage for illegal immigrants.
But the problem of illegal immigration is not solely Greek. It is European. Greece is the country most exposed, as Italy and Spain were in the past. Now immigrants cross the Evros and go to Athens, to the Omonia district. From there, they travel on to Patras and Igoumenitsa to embark for Italy, hiding in false bottoms in trucks and vans. The migrants do not want to stay in Greece – they head to the north of Europe: Norway, Sweden, the UK and Germany.
We meet two young Nepalese, 25 and 27 years old, waiting for a train to Athens at Alexandroupolis train station. They claim to have travelled for 15 days, crossing several borders illegally, often on foot. Why have they left their country?
“There are no jobs and we need money,” says Arsis Akota. “In Nepal, we were working as cooks but the pay was too low. So off we went. We chose to come to Greece because it is easier to enter illegally than any other European country.”
The relative ease with which you can enter Greece does not seem to have much affect on the rates of traffickers. It costs between Dh2,240 and Dh3,580 on average to pass the Evros, but if you come from a distance the figure is much higher. Far too many still cross the borders illegally, all too often walking for miles to get across.
“Ultimately, the crisis gripping the Hellenic peninsula led to the birth of a new phenomenon,” confides an investigator at the police station in Alexandroupolis. Among the smugglers there are now also Greeks.
Farmers who have land near the river Evros, speak Turkish and might have small boats, make contact with the Turkish traffickers and manage the transition. The military police patrolling the area do not suspect, or rather did not suspect them until a few months ago. But just do the maths: Dh1835 per person. Each crossing takes on average between five and ten migrants. In times of crisis that could be a substantial income. Hard to turn down.
Europe is so far, yet so close on that strip of land on the river Evros. Sometimes all the security around makes no difference. If a door is closed, traffickers will open a window. The police of Alexandroupolis have already targeted the Evros River delta: they know that once they have increased controls in the north, migrants will simply head further south. It has been that way forever. When one route closes, another one opens, and there is no end in sight.