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Παρασκευή, 31 Αυγούστου 2012

[EN] THE ODYSSEY OF MIGRANTS


 “We have not eaten anything for three days. We are waiting for the Greek police to arrest us so that they give us something to eat.” This 20-year-old Afghan’s words describe perfectly the cruel reality along the North-Eastern borders of Greece. While Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, deployed there last November a special force in order to stem the influx of illegal migrants, the problem does not seem to be solved. Even if the numbers show a relative decrease in the number of migrants, their ‘odyssey’ is still ongoing. “We started our journey from Afghanistan. We passed through Iraq to Turkey and from the Turkish border we walked here. We were told that the Greek border guards will arrest us immediately and after a few days we will be free to go to Athens. But we are still waiting for them. I have a friend in Athens. I will walk there in order to find him,” says another 22-year-old Afghan.
Upon entering Tychero, one of the Greek villages near Turkey, the mood is full of contradictions. On the one hand, a visitor can immediately sense the village’s wealth and beauty. He might even be impressed by a big colourful sign that invites him to experience a day of horse riding. But, while driving along the central road, he cannot but be shocked by the throngs of young people – mostly migrants – who either have just taken the road for Athens or are on their way to the police station to give up themselves. Some of them are smiling, hoping that the most difficult part of their adventure is over, as they are not yet aware that Athens – their destination - is more than 900 km away. Others seem scared and tired from the long journey. A couple with a baby child is heading for the nearby police department. They stop to talk to us, hoping that we will offer useful information. No, they do not want to answer our questions. They are already too scared of what is going to happen to them in the next hours. The nearby police department also doubles as a detention centre, although it clearly does not meet the minimum requirements.

Hundreds of sweaty and exhausted migrants are perching on the railings in front of the building, which is simply too small to accommodate all of them. It was designed to house no more than 45 people, but as Doctors Without Borders bear witness, sometimes more than 200 migrants are held there. Women, men and children share the same room and no special care is provided for juveniles. “I am 15 years old. I come from Algeria. I have been locked up here for more than two months,” says a little boy hanging from the bars of a small window.

“A time bomb”

The policemen and the border guards wear protective masks when they approach the migrants. However, a tuberculosis outbreak is a real threat. “The detention centres are a time bomb ready to explode,” says Charalambos Pantelidis, general secretary of Evros’ Union of Border Guards. A recent public statement by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) has
condemned the Greek  authorities for their “persistent lack of action to improve the situation in the light of the committee’s recommendations, as regards the detention
of irregular migrants and the state of the prison system”. Overcrowding is only one of the major problems that show Greece’s inability to deal effectively with illegal migration. In
2010, the influx of migrants from across the country’s 12.5 km land border with Turkey increased tremendously. The existing detention centres could not cope with the 300-400 new arrivals per day. As a policeman put it, “we are obliged to set some of them free. So we pick those who seem less dangerous”. Next, the luckiest ones are shipped to Athens (if they can afford the €60 bus ticket), where they are ordered to leave the country within one month. In this ‘selection process’, their country of origin and whether they will seek asylum are important considerations. It is well known to all of them that if they decide against seeking asylum, they could stay in detention for a few more months while their case is examined by the Greek authorities. The number of migrants who end up in Athens has increased tenfold in recent years to around 500,000, according to police estimates. This has led to the ensuing increase in criminal cases and racist attacks. “This magic piece of paper which they are given allows them to reach Athens quite easily and is also the spark that often sets off riots inside the detention centres” says Pantelidis, adding that “citizens of certain countries are not entitled to receive this paper. So they lie about where they come from. They know, for example, that those of Iraqi origin are not given this paper and so they claim to be Palestinians. Over the last three or four months, most of the migrants who enter illegally claim to have come from African countries, such as Congo or Somalia”.

No visa needed

The Turkish government’s recent decision to exempt the citizens of certain  Muslim countries from the visa obligation has had a serious impact on the increase in migration flows, according to the Greek authorities. “A major change was noticed since Turkey waived
its visa requirements for inhabitants of North African countries. In addition to Afghans, Iraqis and Palestinians, a significant share of the refugees now come from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia,” says George Salamangas, chief of the Police Department of Orestiada. According to
Greek policemen and border guards, it has become cheaper to enter the European Union, as it costs only some €40 to travel to Istanbul and €5 will take the migrants to the Greek-Turkish land border. It is also less risky, they add, as the migrants can now cross the borders
by foot (the landmines were removed in 2009). Entering Greece by sea is a singificantly more expensive undertaking. People traffickers may charge as much as €4,000-5,000 for the “ride,” and the risks are also a lot higher.

“Wall of shame”

A fisherman ventures to take us to the Evros  river, the natural border between Greece and Turkey, which journalists are not allowed to visit. “Do not think that it is a friendly river. Hundreds of migrants have lost their lives while trying to reach the Greek coast,” he says. And yet, this natural borderline between the two countries has became the main point of entry for illegal migrants. The Greek government now plans to build a fence along the river in order to “stop the massive and uncontrolled influx of migrants,” Salamangas explains. This project raises major concerns. According to Mufti Mehmet Serdanatoglou,  who is in charge of burying the corpses of migrants who die in this area, “this wall will go down in history as the wall of shame. Not only will it not be effective as a measure, but it also will push the migrants back into the river where their lives will be in danger”. Dr Pavlos Pavlidis, coroner at the nearby hospital of Alexandroupolis, agrees. “During the last year far fewer corpses
were found in the river. Before the landmines were removed, we had over 60 cases of drowning every year. This number has decreased to 25 since January 2010. Building the fence will definitely push the numbers up again”. Preparations for the construction of the fence are in a final stage, said the Greek Minister of Citizen Protection, Christos Papoutsis, recently. He also revealed that 14 new detention centres will be built in Attica and elsewhere in Greece.

By Christina Vasilaki

Photos Christina Vasilaki
Published in EUROPOLITICS N° 4227, on Thursday 23 June 2011