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.
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.” A 24-year-old Algerian, evidently the last romantic on Earth, proposes marriage to our writer for visa purposes. The next morning, we visited the Orestiada police station to meet with Chief George Salamangas, a big man with a strange penchant for spitting on his fingers while talking. After sending out an officer to bring us coffee, he switched on his computer and guided us through a PowerPoint presentation, complete with graphs, photographs, and night-vision footage of migrants walking across the border and their subsequent arrests. He told us that Turkey has stopped asking people from Islamic countries for a visa. As a result, instead of taking the once-preferred route from Morocco and then Spain, many migrants looking to illegally enter Europe now take a plane to Istanbul from Casablanca. From there, they’ll pay smugglers a considerable fee—usually between 1,000 and 2,000 euros—to deliver them from Istanbul to Alexandroupolis. Evros became the preferred point of entry in 2010, a year in which approximately 36,000 illegal immigrants were arrested (compared with just 3,500 the year before). That’s when Frontex came into the picture. “Together, we worked on Operation RABIT and managed to keep the numbers under control,” Salamangas said. “This year, however, the river had almost no water so our efforts didn’t really make any difference. When the river is wet, the dangers are much greater. The traffickers’ boats don’t have engines, so the migrants have to row. Most of them don’t know how to row or swim, and the currents are so strong it drifts the boats. Often the smugglers will force them to get into the river, sometimes using extreme violence.” He then showed us some footage of a group of people getting off a truck, each receiving a rifle butt to the spine as a good-bye present from their trafficker. “Those we do not arrest come and turn themselves in,” he continued. “That’s the strange thing.” Salamangas explained that the migrants want to be screened in Greece so that the country becomes responsible for their application for asylum, as mandated by the Dublin Regulation. So the moment a migrant gets caught roaming Europe without a passport—which happens very often—he or she is sent back to Greece. “To qualify as political asylum seekers,” Salamangas said, “white migrants often claim to be Palestinian, and blacks claim they are from Somalia. The only thing we can do on our end is hope the wall will be finished by the middle of 2012. None of them want to stay in Greece, especially now with the crisis. They use our borders merely as a way in. It’s important to stress this: These are not Greek borders, they are European borders.” I asked Salamangas about reports of poor living conditions in the detention centers and he replied, “We run one center in Filakio, Orestiada. It is a space that can house 294 people. This is too small for the numbers of immigrants we are asked to deal with. Things were fine up until 2009. I know for a fact that the Ministry of Citizen Protection and the police are trying very hard to find larger spaces for them. Not only for the sake of the immigrants but also for our staff.” He then spit on his thumb, which we took as our cue to leave. Our next stop, of course, was Filakio. Entering the detention-center courtyard, we saw about 30 men (and one baby) who had just been screened and were now waiting for a bus that would take them to Athens, where they would be allowed to stay for a maximum of three months before risking permanent imprisonment. “I want to go to Athens, but it’s 50 euros,” said Hamza Attatfa, a 24-year-old Algerian. “Where are you going? Do you want to marry me? I’ll get a visa if you do.” Hamza’s fellow countryman Kyle Farid seemed worldlier: “I’ve already done this and managed to get to England without getting caught. I lived in Roehampton. Then my mom, who is in Algeria, got sick and I had to return. But my girlfriend is in England.” According to Kyle, the Turkish Army picked him up the day before our visit and gave him a few beatings before passing him to smugglers at the border. “At least here they don’t treat us badly, but the conditions are the worst,” he said. “There are no showers, and the food is horrible.” Aras, a 22-year-old Pakistani, told us that he planned to leave Greece after his 15-year-old brother was released from detainment. “I’ve already been here for four years, but right now there is no money so I want to go back to Pakistan,” he said. “At the stable where I work there used to be 27 horses, and now there are only three. I’m trying to get my brother released, and then we’ll make our way to Athens.” Our trip was coming to a close, but I was still unsure how I felt about the situation. After just a few days in the region it was obvious that the rest of Europe has been neglecting Greece’s border troubles, but it’s an issue that can’t be resolved until the EU overcomes the laundry list of challenges that partially spawned this situation. On the other hand, the world is a desperate place, and everyone should have the right to seek a better life without having to face minefields, cold rivers, and thugs with guns. That night, our final in Evros, we had dinner in Vissa, a minuscule village just outside Orestiada and only meters from the border. We sat in the only café we could find—a large, perpendicular space that was almost completely void of decoration. Besides us, its sole patrons were a couple dozen men who looked to be in their 80s. They were fascinated by our presence, forming a circle around us. Then the owner, George, began telling us of their village’s long-standing tradition of smuggling: “It all started in the 1940s with the war; we’d smuggle in meat and animals from Turkey. In the 1950s and 60s it was mostly fur, and then in the 70s we’d bring in marijuana. Cocaine and Pakistani men during the 1980s. Then the Turks woke up and slowly, our own trade died down.” It might have not done much to help my moral dilemma, but at least things were slightly put into perspective. Who knows what other tricky business these lovable granddads had gotten themselves into back in their day? Who knows how cute our crimes might look in just a few decades’ time? I guess there’s nothing like the human condition to lighten the mood.