Where Europe Begins: A Greek River Crossing Marked On So Many Immigrant Maps
Along the river Evros, at the Turkish border, the Greek town of Nea Vyssa has become the first point of arrival for immigrants coming from all points east. Nowhere can you see better both the hopes and futility of the waves of immigration that continue to
NEA VYSSA - "You see that? Right across there, that's Europe. That's where everything is simple. There you will be happy, so happy." That was what the smuggler said, before pushing their boat into the river. Jawed's boat circled a few times before he figured out how to dip the oars into the water. It was simple. In fact, only ten minutes later, he was on the other side. In Europe.
The river is the Evros, and it is the border of Europe. Surrounded by plowed fields and bare, black clay, a straight road leads to Nea Vyssa, the first village after the border. Here and there a naked tree, huddled houses, or a hunchbacked woman waiting at a garden fence. It feels like the end of a dream world. Or the beginning. This is where Europe is fought for, day after day.
More than 7,000 people used to live in Nea Vyssa. Now, it's barely 2,000. Even the Greeks have fled to Germany and Switzerland.
Giorgos, who wears an earring and a tracksuit, is 30 years old and still here. He pushes firewood in the makeshift stove that warms his coffee house. It's half past seven, and soon the regular customers will shuffle in to order Nescafé, medium sweet. They watch the night recede, and stare at the neon installation of the gas station next door. Only the old people have remained. Giorgos sighs, "What can I do?"
But lately the whole world seems to be coming to him, to his coffee shop. For two years, a steady stream of migrants has flown past the astonished farmers of Nea Vyssa. "Where do they go?" Giorgos is whispering now. "I don't know, but I help them. They often come in soaking wet – mothers with babies. I give them milk, tea, something to eat, but people in the village are afraid. What if they bring in diseases?"
After a few moments, they begin to arrive from across the railway tracks: a group of ten, with messy hair and grass stains on their clothes. They are shy, and speak broken English, "Is here Yunan?" they ask. It's the old Persian-Arabic word for Greece. "Greece, Greece is here." A short pause. "Aah.... Greece is the name?"
The men, four from Pakistan and six from Afghanistan, are happy to have arrived. The youngest, Abdulmobeen, is 17 years old. They have been on the road for five weeks, and have not eaten for two days. Abdulmobeen worked in Kabul, in a shop that sold soap. His father sent him away with $5,000. "Here, there is no fear," he says. "In Afghanistan, people fight. They kill. In Europe, there are good people, they do not fight. Here, life is good."
A big bus pulls up; it's the police. The ten men stand still. They will be brought to a detention center and then let go again. A policeman says: "I feel bad. But we need to solve the problems in Afghanistan. Otherwise we will soon turn into Afghanistan."
The bus drives away. The station attendant laughs, and says, "In the summer we stop counting at 150 a day. Some of them even come hobbling across the border on crutches."
A time bomb
A few years ago, Evros was a forgotten part of the world. Today, it is the gateway to Europe. Spain, France, Italy, have sealed off their borders so successfully that few other smuggling routes remain. The majority of illegal immigrants now come to Europe through Greece.
In 2009, 3,500 illegal migrants were arrested in the Evros region. In 2010, there were more than 47,500 – almost half of the total number of arrests across the EU. In October 2011, the EU border protection agency Frontex announced a new record: 9,600 illegal border crossings at the Evros river in just one month. "That's two new villages a day," says the civil protection minister in Athens. "This is a time bomb."
Frontex officer Sylvester Dieteren, a former policeman from Holland, says he has never seen a border like this one. "People in Europe do not know what's going on here, but they should. All of these people want to come join us."
For many, it's about finding a life without hardship. For others, it's all about the money. And migrants are not the enemy for the border guards, their smugglers are. Like Murat, who barrels through the Turkish border town of Edirne in his Renault. "Arabs, Iranians, Iraqis, Palestinians – all of them want to come to Europe," he says. "We get them UN refugee passports from an internet shop in Istanbul. You simply throw away your passport, show the police your UN papers, and you can stay in Turkey for two years." Murat then takes the migrants up to the Greek border.
"I do not get why the police do not stop them," says a farmer in the Turkish border town of Karaagac. "And if they are caught, nothing happens to them. The police fill out forms that they throw away."
Some smugglers charge up to $1,000 for a border crossing. "It's worth it," says Murat, who was an electrician and taxi driver before he entered the trafficking trade. He was caught once in 2003, but only spent 42 days in prison. Today, the penalty is much higher – at least three years in prison.
Soon, the fence that has already caused so many headlines will come to Evros. From Nea Vyssa to Kastanies, it will span the entire 12.5-kilometer land border. "In the spring we will build it," says Giorgo Salamangas, police chief of Orestiada. "Despite the crisis."
The fence is a Greek project, and the EU is not paying one cent. Bishop Anthimos of Alexandroupoli has called the idea "inhuman." In 2010, politicians in Athens called for the fence, after 26,000 people passed through the 12-kilometer strip. But in 2011, after Frontex began patrolling the strip, there were only 800, and smugglers have resorted to river crossings. But the fence will go up, if only as a symbol.
No sending back
"The EU has left us by ourselves," says Evangelos Maraslis, mayor of Nea Vyssa. "These people do not want to come to Greece. They want to go to Europe, but we are being overrun here."
But Europe has indeed started sending policemen, like Sylvester Dieteren. Yes, says the Dutchman, many of his colleagues feel like Sisyphus. But he feels he is making progress. "We are here to protect Europe," he says.
But how? They are not allowed to send migrants back across the river. Everyone who sets foot on Greek soil remains. They are taken to a camp, registered, interrogated, and because the camps are overcrowded, released. Then they move on to Athens. Police will not solve the problem, argues Dieter. "This is a policy issue," he says.
Many people who cross the border here are strong, and willing to take on many risks to find a better future. Like Jawed Mesavi, the 17-year-old Afghan boy who saw many of his friends killed when he tried to take refuge in Pakistan. He never attended school, and his father died when he was four. He hopes to find work in Europe in order to help his younger siblings go to school.
In Iran, he was shot at by border guards. When he finally made it to Greece, he landed in a refugee camp in Filakio, where he shared a bed with two others and brackish water spilled over from the toilet into the bedroom. He grimaces: "It was sooo dirty." Civil rights activists are up in arms over the camp conditions, and the EU is frustrated that Athens has not built new camps.
For now, Jawed is living in "Arsis," a home in Alexandroupoli, that takes care of minors without parents who are caught by the police. Some 250 children have arrived in the last three months, among them Somali teens sold into prostitution.
Where Jawed will go next is unclear. "For a trip to Italy," he says, "the smugglers would want another $4,000." If he had his wish, he would go to Norway: "People say, Norway is good." And would he advise his friends at home to make the trip? Without hesitation. "In Pakistan, we live a dangerous life. This is nothing compared to that. I tell all my friends: If you can raise the money, then come."
Read the original article in German
Photo - ggia