The migration crisis at the Greek-Turkish borders
What is going on at the border?
Being back after a long road-trip, the first thing that comes to my mind is that the situation is not one-sided. But there is one dimension that concerns Greece: could the country accommodate more people?
Today there are more than 70,000 (registered) immigrants and refugees living on its territory, who neither want to stay nor can they be absorbed by the weak economy. The advent of many more will possibly challenge the living of both the migrants, who will not find comfortable shelter, and the citizens who (especially the islanders) since 2015 are giving a struggle to save the people in the sea.
Our experience was apocalyptic. In 12 hours we traveled to Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey eye-witnessing the contradiction. We came across the competition between the EU and Turkey about the role of the latter in the regional subsystem of the Middle East. Greece is only the middle person.
We arrived at the border town of Kastanies where we met Greek and foreign correspondents. The situation was calm but occasionally the crowd of migrants sitting on the Turkish side were yelling indistinctly. We learnt that last week, about 20,000 migrants have been transferred from the Turkish mainland to the border.
The situation at the Turkish side
According to safe information coming from journalists on the ground (e.g. Antonis Repanas from Al Jazeera), before the transfer, Turkey circulated information via SMS and envoys, that the border is open and everyone could now go to Europe. Coaches took the migrants from various cities to the frontier only to see that their exodus is simply not allowed. The Turkish police blamed Greece and pushed the people to the fence, with the prospect to overtake it. The attempt to violate the borderline was responded with teargas by the Hellenic police, while soldiers, escorted by trained dogs, were waiting a breath away.
Turkey had succeeded in giving international dimension to the situation, with pictures of people hanging on the wire mesh reproduced in social media and the Press throughout Europe. However, after failing to break the line, they moved many of the migrants southern. The idea was to find a weak spot at the river dividing the two countries, and let them in from there. It was an orchestrated effort.
The village of Doyran is built literally on the eastern bank of Evros River, nearly 20 minutes southern of Edirne. The riverside is more or less 100m wide. In the northern entrance of the village we saw a Turkish garrison with soldiers. Α manned observation tower was standing tall at the Greek side. A couple of days ago, coaches brought some thousands of migrants, local residents reported. One other resident told us that usually someone can cross the river walking but the days the water flow has increased. Perhaps, he said, the Bulgarians have opened the dams to prevent these movements. We did not see any migrants as they were collected by coaches a few hours ago but we recorded what they had left behind: a field full of garbage such as cans of beer, bottles of raki, clothes, baby diapers and food packaging.
We made our way back to Edirne, hoping to see some movement there. Entering the city, while on the highway, we observed a large congregation of people stationed in a closed gas station by the side road. We approached them and they told us they were delivered from Doyran, after failing to go across. The ethnic background was very diverse: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, even Palestine, and many more. One Palestinian woman, 6 months pregnant, was worried about giving birth, despite the risk she took to travel to the unknown like this. I heard several stories and I am inclined to think that only few of them could actually be granted asylum in Europe. Most of them, such as those coming from Gaza, are migrants who said that they lived in a poor country and wanted to go to Canada or France for a better life.
Politically, they appeared furious with Greece due to the alleged reports about violent behaviour of the Greek forces to those trying o violate the border. We heard one same story many times: some migrants payed Turkish smugglers to get them to the other side of the river in boats. When they landed however, they were arrested by Greek police officers who robbed them, took their clothes, and returned them nude by boat to the other bank. They even showed us a small video showing 3 of them, walking in Doyran in underwear. I had never seen this video before but I had some doubts. I told them it could be fake because the claim that they were pushed back to Turkey, in boats, with Greek policemen on them, and a Turkish garrison on the shore would provoke real gunfire. My arguments did not convince them. They fully believed what was presented to them.
When I returned home, I cross-checked the video and I found out that it was fake. It was screened on Turkish media and then circulated among the refugees electronically. On Twitter, I found many similar videos directed in Turkey aiming scenes that would expose Greece internationally, and I discovered that the concept of police brutality was first reported in 2015 by leftish journalists, and since then it is being used in many versions occasionally.
From the answers we received, however, I understood that the people who move are vulnerable to all kinds of disinformation and the trade of hope. They are desperate and tired of wandering here and there. Some have been in the caravans for months or even years. They all see Europe as the land of promise, because of what they learn fro relatives who have made it to get asylum and from middlemen who serve political purposes. In principle, there is a great deal of confusion underpinned by the 2015 pan-European "open borders" policy.
The U-turn of the EU institutions, as declared officially at the visit of the high officials along with the Greek Premier in Evros (3/3/2020) has not yet been communicated to the opposite bank. Not long ago, the EU invited refugees and migrants in the name of humanitarianism. Now, it has decided to stop accepting more, under the threat of a far-right rise in many countries. That means that Greece has to carry out a herculean task on behalf of all. At the same time, those trapped on the Aegean islands can neither go east nor west.
While the Greek government displays a tough stance, talking to its domestic audience, it crawls behind the ephemeral Brussels rhetoric and the 700 million euro aid. This is indeed an EU problem with geopolitical dimensions and it is very hard to see how the impasse can be solved anytime soon.