A Borderline Crisis
Greece Has Had It Up to Here with Illegal Immigrants
Photos by Henry Langston
The Evros river, deceptively calm here, contains violent currents that can make it very difficult for would-be border jumpers to cross.
I grew up in Athens, and it’s been heartbreaking to witness the city’s transformation from the booming cultural metropolis of my childhood to ground zero of Greece’s financial apocalypse. The atmosphere is hostile and strange. It’s not an exaggeration to say that many seem to have lost their minds; they walk around chanting nonsense, or randomly burst out screaming. It’s bleak.
Despite the looming backdrop of potential bankruptcy and widespread corruption, one of the most striking aspects of contemporary Greece is the number of illegal immigrants walking through its streets. Many of them have escaped war, famine, or disease-ridden countries in search of a better future. Unfortunately, they have picked a bad time to visit, and things may not be much better here than where they came from. Curious about how Greece’s excruciating austerity measures are affecting the country’s least privileged—and vice versa—photojournalist Henry Langston and I rented a car and headed for Orestiada, a border town that’s becoming infamous as an entry point to the rest of Europe.
Aras, a Pakistani migrant, holds up a picture of his15-year-old brother, who he is trying to free from a detention center.
Greece witnessed its first wave of economic migration in 1989, after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Back then, the immigrants passing through were mainly Albanians, Bulgarians, and Romanians who exploited the country’s porous northern border. Over the past decade, however, this traffic flow has shifted and eastern Greece has become a major gateway into Europe, mainly due to war and political unrest in Africa and the Middle East. According to Frontex, the agency responsible for patrolling EU borders, 112,844 immigrants were registered by authorities in the first nine months of 2011, up from 76,697 during the same period in 2010.
The most common route for immigrants to enter the EU now is through Greece’s border with Turkey, which coincides with the Evros River. In 2010, Orestiada police found 26 bodies in and around the river. In an attempt to stop the crossings, the government decided to build a barrier to block the land border. The project has since been delayed and relaunched a number of times, with human rights groups protesting its construction and the EU pulling funding for the project. Alas, the barrier’s foundations were laid in early February, but whether or not the wall will be fully realized is anyone’s guess.
We had only been driving through the endless valley of cotton and sugarcane fields of the Evros region for a few minutes when we spotted five men walking along the highway toward Alexandroupoli, the capital of Evros. Lightly dressed despite the cold weather, and clearly worn out, they looked away when they saw we had a camera. It was a sign that we were headed in the right direction. We continued to pass many more migrants en route to our destination, none of them eager to talk to us. On our arrival we met up with the former mayor of Orestiada, Aggelos Papaioannou, and his friend Stathis at a local restaurant. We quickly learned that Stathis works as a garlic farmer, his land only a few meters from the border.
“They pass through the field looking miserable, hungry, and wet,” Stathis said, spraying us with tiny pieces of half-chewed meat. “They are usually just kids, not much older than 20. There isn’t much you can do for them. I remember back in the 1980s, I would wait by the borders in my truck in case someone who needed help crossing appeared. It was an easy way to make some pocket money. Now that’s considered a felony. So we’ll give them a bottle of water or some food, but that’s pretty much it.” I asked whether the number of people crossing the border fluctuates with the seasons. “Not really,” Stathis answered. “They come in dozens all the time. Hell, I’ve even seen people in wheelchairs passing through. The other week, five dead bodies were fished out of the river.”
“You’ve got the old border minefields right next to your land. Are they still live?” Aggelos cut in as Stathis ordered our third bottle of wine. “The mines have been there since 1964,” Aggelos said. “Back then, the Turkish smugglers would often tell Christian migrants they were kitchen gardens that they could pass through freely. We’d hear explosions every day and find body parts all over the fields. But they cleared the place up five years ago.”