KASTANIES, Greece — Migrants in Turkey threw a hail of rocks and tear gas at Greek security forces just over the border, their yells punctuated by the sound of grenades the Greeks detonated in response. The Greeks held a thin green line behind their riot shields, firing rifles into the air intermittently to keep the migrants from rushing the border fence further along the flat woods and farmland marking the edge of Europe.
A few days earlier, on March 4, Turkey’s autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had opened his country’s border to Greece so the millions of migrants desperate to enter Europe could stream into the land between the countries. It was a move he had long threatened and finally made good on after the death of 33 Turkish soldiers in an airstrike in Syria.
Erdoğan claimed his action was intended to save the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Russian and Syrian bombing in the Turkish-backed rebel and jihadi-dominated enclave of Idlib. In reality, the displaced people of Idlib remain trapped in Syria by the world’s second-longest wall, with Turkish gendarmes ordered to use lethal force to keep the border closed.
The migrants at the border, who had been bussed to the border city of Edirne by free coaches organized by the Turkish government, were instead from long-standing migrant and refugee communities in Istanbul. Mostly Afghans, many from the country’s Hazara Shia minority, they had been falsely advised by Turkish officials and state media that the road to Europe was finally open.
Only a few weeks later, on March 27, Turkish police burned down the migrant tents. They gave the risk of coronavirus spreading as the reason.
Erdoğan had long used opening Turkey’s border to Greece as a trump card in negotiating with his European neighbors. The arrival of more than 1 million largely Syrian refugees and other migrants to Europe, primarily to Germany, during the 2015 migrant crisis had dramatically unsettled European politics. People across the continent swung their support to anti-migrant rightwing populist parties, transforming European politics in a historic shift that is still far from over.
“They are invaders. They're not migrants any more.”
With Europe diplomatically weak and internally divided, Erdoğan had effectively used the migrants as a tool to blunt criticism of his 2019 invasion of northeastern Syria, and to extract money at will from fearful EU leaders. As Greek defense minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos toured the border village of Kastanies, reassuring anxious locals that the army would hold the line, it seemed likely that European leaders would fold once again.
“My grandson is a soldier, Minister,” an anxious elderly Greek woman told Panagiotopoulos, grasping his hand. “Greece starts from here. This message should be passed to Europeans. Europe is not here at the moment. Only Greece is.” VICE News asked Panagiotopoulos whether he expected personnel from the EU border agency Frontex to deploy in support of the Greek state. “Frontex is here. That’s all I have to say now,” he responded. “But I guess we’ll take it up with the [EU] minister’s conference when we meet in Zagreb in a couple of days.”
While EU leaders coordinated their response, Greece’s new conservative government deployed reinforcements of troops and police from across the country. Locals cheered as military convoys rolled through the towns and cities of this formerly quiet border region.
The Greek government — as well as the majority of Greeks — did not believe they were witnessing a migrant crisis. Instead, they saw the conflict at the border as an act of hybrid warfare in which Turkey was weaponizing migrants and refugees in order to destabilize Greece. Erdoğan has repeatedly said that both this region of Western Thrace as well as the eastern islands most affected by the migrant crisis should be reconquered by Turkey, the imperial ruler of these borderlands until just over a century ago.
Videos posted by migrants on social media — and others distributed to journalists by the Greek government — showed Turkish security forces in uniform and plain clothes firing tear gas at Greek forces as migrants attempted to storm the border fence. Others showed a Turkish armored vehicle attempting to pull down the border fence by tugging on an attached cable.
As northeastern Greece began to feel like a region at war, the Greek armed forces declared the border region a closed military zone. The army began conducting live fire exercises along the border.
Military checkpoints sprang up along the wetlands of the Evros delta, and they restricted access to journalists. At one checkpoint, VICE News saw a dozen or so dejected South Asian men sitting huddled at the feet of Greek soldiers, waiting to be returned to Turkey in a previously illegal “pushback” now that asylum claims had been suspended by the Greek government.
In the border villages along the Evros river, hundreds of local farmers, hunters, and military reservists assembled into border patrol groups. Soldiers at newly-established military checkpoints flagged them down with torches in the darkness, checking their names before permitting them to proceed with their patrol.
In the village of Feres, a mile from the Turkish border, VICE News spoke to a group of young volunteers just before they headed on patrol. “We fear that they're going to send more, the thousands that won't be controllable any more,” Georgios Goranis told VICE News. “The more they gather on the border, the worse it gets,” added his friend Christos Chtazis, “because the villagers are outnumbered by the immigrants. They are approximately 30,000 and we are only 8,000 people”
“They are not just illegal aliens, they are invaders,” concluded Theodoros Siourdakis, “Yes, now they are invaders. They're not migrants any more.”
Further along the border, migrants and refugees who crossed illegally were scrambling up forested hillsides in the foothills of the Rhodopi mountains along the Bulgarian frontier, taking the long route around the checkpoints in hope of travelling freely on to Northern Europe.
In the freezing rain, shrouded by mountain fog, Moroccan migrant Nail Boukhreis showed VICE News his soaked and blistered feet, explaining he was travelling “from Turkey to Thessaloniki, Greece, and from Thessaloniki to Europe, God willing. I’m looking for work. Work here is good. There are no jobs in Morocco,” he said, before trudging off into the mist.
But the chances of Boukhreis reaching Western Europe are slim. With asylum claims suspended, the Greek government had announced that day, with the EU’s blessing, that economic migrants would be deported straight home to their country of origin once detained.
In the mountain village of Mikro Dereio, VICE News spoke with four Moroccan migrants sitting huddled together on the stone floor of the village coffee shop, watched over by three Greek security forces in ski masks, holding staves and pistols. “They told us they were from Syria,” one white-bearded elderly man in the coffee shop told VICE News derisively, as he watched proceedings with his fellow villagers. “But I knew they were lying.” Statistics released to journalists by the Greek government that day asserted that of the 252 migrants and refugees who had then been detained by Greek security forces, 64% were from Afghanistan and 19% were from Pakistan, with only 4% being the Syrians claimed by the Turkish government — less than the number of Turkish nationals detained, at 5% of the total.
With the border holding, and the origins of the vast majority of the migrants undermining the humanitarian claims of Turkey’s government-controlled media, the European Union mainstream slowly swung around to support the Greek side.
“If you see a Greek person here, you feel he wants to slaughter you.”
The EU’s top officials were helicoptered on a tour of the border by the Greek government, before holding a press conference in a church hall at Kastanies. In an unexpectedly unequivocal show of support for the Greek government, the EU leaders pledged their full support for Greece’s zero tolerance policy at the border, with the president of the EU Council, Ursula von der Leyen — effectively the continental bloc’s president — declaring that Greece was Europe’s “aspida, ” or shield. Whirring blades of low-flying aircraft punctuated their speeches dramatically.
Furthermore, Von der Leyen said, the EU would provide 700 million euros in funding for border infrastructure, half of it immediately, along with the promise of 100 EU Frontex reinforcements, a helicopter, and patrol boats.
For Greece’s conservative government, it was a powerful vindication of their border policy; for Europe, it was the first chance since Brexit for the EU to demonstrate its common purpose and solidarity in the face of a major crisis. VICE News asked Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, if he was happy with the support from Europe. “It is the best we could have hoped for,” he replied.
Europe’s new hard line on mass migration from Turkey is boosted by the failure of the EU’s 2016 deal with Turkey.
That agreement, overseen by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, gave Ankara 6 billion euros in exchange for preventing migrant boats from leaving Turkish beaches for Greek shores. It outlined that refugees already in Greece would be resettled in the rest of the EU, while economic migrants ineligible for asylum would be returned to Turkey. The EU would take one Syrian refugee from Turkish camps in exchange for every economic migrant returned.
The deal was a failure from the start. European nations openly hostile to external migration like Hungary and Poland refused to accept any refugees, while others theoretically open to the idea, like France, exploited loopholes to take as few as possible. A tiny fraction of the arrivals in Greece have been resettled in other European countries.
Almost no failed claimants were returned to Turkey. And the numbers of migrants sailing from Turkey to Greece began to steadily climb again, doubling in the last year alone.
As a result, eastern Greek islands like Lesvos, Chios, and Samos have been turned into the European Union’s open-air detention camps, with more than 40,000 migrants and refugees living in squalid conditions in makeshift shanty towns on the edges of island villages. Local Greeks complain of a dramatic rise in crime as destitute migrants break into their homes to steal household goods, furniture, and even floorboards to burn for warmth and construct dwellings.
Popular concern over demographic change as a result of mass migration is toppling liberal governments across the continent. But nowhere has experienced the phenomenon as rapidly or as dramatically as Greece’s eastern islands.
On the island of Samos, the capital Vathy has a population of 7,000 and is now neighbored by a sprawling refugee camp of 7,000 migrants and refugees. They live in desperate conditions on the wooded slopes overlooking the town.
In the vast shanty town, the sounds of sawing and hammering punctuate birdsong as migrants and refugees chop down olive and pine trees to construct huts, shops, and bakeries. Refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as economic migrants from Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria, and Ghana live in unhygienic conditions huddled against each other in a camp designed for just 680 people. The migrants say interethnic violence and petty crime is rampant. “Problems between Afghans and Arabs always break out at the food queue,” Omar Abu Zeraa, a young refugee from the Syrian city of Aleppo, told VICE News. “I tell you, if this happened in any country, there would be problems. Seven thousand Greeks live here, along with 7,000 migrants. Think about it. They were only 7,000 people living in peace.”
“Things have got so bad now, if you see a Greek person here, you feel he wants to slaughter you.”
While VICE News was on Samos, migrants and refugees demanding passage to the mainland held a series of demonstrations. In one, African migrants hurled rocks at Greek riot police, who quelled the protest with tear gas. Although they had been prevented from entering the town center to demonstrate, in the town below, shops closed early and Greek mothers hurried away from work to pick up their children from nursery.
At another impromptu demonstration by Arab migrants and refugees in the town’s picturesque main square, angry local Greeks, including the mayor of eastern Samos, Giorgos Stantzos, shooed the demonstrators away. Then locals attacked the VICE News crew, smashing one of our two cameras and throwing the other in the sea.
The new threat of coronavirus outbreaks in the squalid refugee camps has exacerbated the already fraught situation. On Thursday, Greece announced it would quarantine a refugee camp on the mainland after 20 people tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Mayor Stantzos is terrified of the explosive situation. “The problem is huge, and I fear every minute. Maybe nothing will happen, maybe anything can happen, a simple accident inside the camp might result in uncontrolled situations, and, sorry to say, human victims.”
“The European borders must be better protected, more effectively, with a strong Frontex presence,” he told VICE News. “Europe must demand Frontex be placed on the Turkish coast. The boats must not sail. And the management should take place in Turkish camps, not European ones.”
“We can't stand European countries to simply exhibit their solidarity by only paying,” he added. “They finance and give money in order for what to happen? To turn a whole country into an open prison?”
Last month, the Greek government attempted to establish new closed camps on the islands, but gave up after villagers on Lesvos besieged the riot police in their military base, forcing them to withdraw and the plan to be abandoned.
After Erdogan brought the slow-burning crisis at Greece’s borders to the brink of undeclared war, the already-frayed hospitality of Greek islanders evaporated completely.
On the island of Lesvos, bands of local vigilantes established checkpoints to prevent migrants from walking into the town. They also harassed, beat, and intimidated the mostly German NGO workers, journalists, and activists in the area, whom Greeks blame for exacerbating the situation.
“This problem grows and spreads like cancer across all of Greece.”
The Greek government announced that no new asylum claims filed after March 1 would be examined, and that any migrants arriving on the islands would be transferred to the mainland for immediate return to their countries of origin.
Before this new policy, refugees whose asylum claims had been accepted were already being transferred to the mainland in small numbers. In the snow-shrouded mountain village of Samarina, in Greece’s northern Pindus mountain range, hundreds of migrants were being hosted in abandoned ski resorts, causing unease among the locals, who belong to Greece’s dwindling Vlach ethnic minority.
“You can’t bring 300 people to a region with 25 or 30 [local] people,” Samarina shopkeeper Michalis Papoulias told VICE News. “Germany, Belgium, Holland, the advanced countries, they took the people they wanted to take.”
“And now what? We are left with people that have nothing, people who are hunted, who are tired. What can we do with them? We can’t absorb them, we don’t have jobs, we are dealing with an economic crisis apart from the immigration that affects all of Europe. But we don’t have the infrastructure to absorb all of these people. So, one thing leads to the other. And this problem grows and spreads like cancer across all of Greece.”
With the first deployment of European reinforcements, including Dutch military police, Austrian police special forces, and Polish and Hungarian border guards, the crisis on the border has begun to abate. But the effects of Erdogan’s gambit in Europe will last far longer. The zero tolerance approach to illegal border crossings by migrants and refugees alike, for which Hungarian leader Viktor Orban was condemned by the European mainstream in 2015, has now become the policy of the European Union as a whole.
European voters already uncomfortable with mass immigration and skeptical that the flows of migrants pressing into the continent were legally entitled to refugee status feel buoyed by the European mainstream’s new response.
Mainstream European conservatives, like the EPP group which represents the European Parliament’s largest bloc, have rushed to associate themselves with the new hard-line border policies. They see a chance to outflank the populist right, which threatens their hold on power, and to convince European voters they can be trusted to stem the migration from outside the continent.
It is likely that, in pressuring EU leaders for his own short-term ends, Erdogan has done great, and perhaps permanent, damage to the entire system of asylum for genuine refugees.
Erdogan gambled that he could deploy migrants as moral blackmail against European leaders. Instead, as European leaders deploy border guards to Greece and build stronger, higher border walls against Turkey, it appears likely that all he has achieved is the construction of a hard-line Fortress Europe as the continental bloc’s new official policy.
Cover: Migrants and refugees scuffle with riot police on the Greek island of Lesvos, on March 3, 2020. (Photo by ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / AFP) (Photo by ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP via Getty Images)
This article originally appeared on VICE US.