Many migrants want to enter the EU via the Greece-Turkey border. Time and again, it is the scene of violence, and the EU border guard Frontex is also said to be involved. Die Welt managed to visit a place that is off-limits for journalists and usually remains hidden from the public.
EVROS — A photo, 92 naked migrants, some of them wounded. Did Turkey force people across the land border into Greece? That's what the Greek government is saying. Is Greece covering up its own crimes against refugees with the photo? That is what Ankara claims.
The border river Evros is one of the routes for migrants who want to go to the EU – and time and again the scene of violence and violations of the law. The EU-funded border protection agency Frontex is said to be involved in these activities. On the other side of the border, in Turkey, migrants are used as leverage.
The Greek-Turkish land border made headlines in early 2020 after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unilaterally declared it open. Thousands of migrants rushed to Greece; Greek border guards fended them off with stun grenades and tear gas.
At the time, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said two sentences essential to understanding his government's migration policy: "This is no longer a refugee problem. This is a blatant attempt by Turkey to use desperate people to push its geopolitical agenda."
And according to the Greeks, when asymmetric warfare is the problem, humanitarian aid is not the answer. Defense is.
The photo with the naked migrants had been published by Greek authorities and media. Some of the people reportedly said they were taken to the river in three vehicles owned by the Turkish authorities and placed in rubber boats to cross the river. Some are said to have suffered injuries, according to a statement from the Greek police. Athens and Ankara blamed each other for the incident.
Journalists banned from Europe's border
What is going on on the ground? Journalists are banned from entering the immediate border. The Greek government has declared the area a military exclusion zone. Only individual scenes reach the public; for example, when media and non-governmental organizations publish the testimonies of people who have been victims of violence. They are stuck on the Evros River on uninhabited islets without drinking water and cannot go to Greece or back to Turkey for days.
People who try to cross the border die again and again
In the end, it is often masked men who force them back to Turkey from the Greek side. This is what migrants report again and again. According to Greek information, more than 36,000 migrants were prevented from crossing the river border in August alone. But by what means, no one wants to say publicly. Greece denies any wrongdoing.
Green MEP Erik Marquardt speaks of a "wall of lies." "We know that people at the external borders are not only denied access to asylum, but are also treated in an inhumane way," he says. The political goal of reducing the number of asylum applications, he said, completely ignores people's dignity.
Migrants walk on a train rail near the Evros River in Greece
No one knows the number of corpses
People who try to cross the border die again and again. Forensics professor Pavlos Pavlidis examines their bodies at the Alexandroupolis University Hospital. The Greek police bring him the bodies, some of which have been exposed to the elements for months and are barely identifiable. There are refrigerated containers in front of the building.
Using personal items and DNA tests, Pavlidis is trying to give them back their names. A lighter, a bracelet. Via Whatsapp, he is in touch with relatives in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, who are worried about the whereabouts of their loved ones. Last year, Pavlidis had 47 bodies on the table. This year, there were 51 by mid-September alone. Only three cases were criminal, he says; most of the wounds on the bodies were postmortem. How many bodies are never found, no one knows.
There are those who die. There are those who are forcibly returned to Turkey without the possibility of asylum. And there are those who are registered and come to a refugee camp. The lucky ones, you might think, but it hardly feels that way to the people in the camp.
The Fylakio camp, 15 kilometers from the border with Turkey, is surrounded by barbed wire and high fences. At the entrance, there is a sign: financed by the European Union. Three Green MEPs are visiting from Brussels to get a picture of the situation. Actually, they also wanted to see the Evros, i.e. the immediate border with Turkey, but at the last moment even they were denied access.
The camp director, Konstantinos Dimitriades, receives them in a white shirt. The migrants, he explains, must sign a consent form upon arrival that their freedom of movement will be restricted. It's a closed camp. Migrants stay here for a maximum of 25 days, Dimitriades says. Their freedoms can't be restricted longer than that.
As he tours the camp, the hallways are empty. People are housed in individual compartments divided by wire mesh: minors here, family there, those in quarantine there. They rattle the fences and shout in Arabic. Dimitriades assures the parliamentarians and journalists traveling with them, "You can freely look around the camp and talk to people."
Protesting against migrant and refugee deaths in Istanbul, Turkey
The EU involved in a cover-up
But in the end, we are not allowed to look around so freely. If we approach the fences, the camp director or his representative will intervene. But one time we are faster. A boy shouts, "Don't believe them, they're not telling the truth!" He points to a girl's feet, which are covered with a pus-filled rash. Is there no doctor? Yes, he says, but he wouldn't give any medicine.
They wanted to get out, the boy says. He and his family have been in the camp for two months. Didn't the director just say that 25 days was the maximum? "An exception," says Dimitriades, who has hurried over and interrupted the conversation. He says the boy is lying. We are not allowed to ask any more questions.
Protecting its external border costs the EU a lot of money. Greece, for example, has received €3.39 billion for migration management since 2015, including €450 million from a pot for internal security and border protection (as of the beginning of the year). All measures financed with money from this fund must respect fundamental rights and human dignity. That is what the regulations say.
Frontex has described any misconduct as 'practices of the past.'
The border protection agency Frontex is also active in Greece — and has come under massive criticism. A report by the EU's anti-corruption agency OLAF says that Frontex staff was involved in covering up illegal deportations of migrants from Greece to Turkey. It was under wraps for a long time until the German “FragDenStaat” (Ask The State) portal recently published it together with Spiegel (a German weekly) and "Lighthouse Reports" (an investigative journalism nonprofit).
Based on the evidence collected, OLAF concludes that the accusations against Frontex "have been proven." Officials had committed "serious misconduct and other irregularities" by covering up pushbacks, failing to investigate or not handling them properly. In one case, for example, a Frontex aircraft moved away from the scene "to avoid witnessing incidents in the Aegean Sea." A few days after the report came to light, the border agency described any misconduct as "practices of the past."
On the day MEPs visit the Fylakio camp, Frontex officials are also present. Their full names may not be quoted. We ask how border crossings are prevented in practice. "All the information we have, we pass on to our Greek colleagues. We are never involved in preventing a border crossing," says an official.
The Greeks would then check people's documents and register them. But what happens to those who are denied entry? How do you turn people back? Another Frontex official weighs in.
"This concerns operational details," he says. That means: it's confidential.