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‘The Monument for Refugees?’ the bar woman frowned. ‘Sorry, I do not know this place.’ Apparently none of the locals did, and it wasn’t on the town map. We had just crossed the border from Turkey and arrived in Orestiada, a small Greek border town founded by Turkish refugees in 1923. The Monument for Refugees commemorates those families who left Turkey for Greece—often under duress—as part of the population exchange between the two countries.
Greece and Turkey are divided by the mighty Evros river, a fierce natural barrier for those seeking to cross the border. But northeast of Orestiada, where the Evros bends, 12.5km of that border is dry land. Since time immemorial, this ‘gap’ in the river has provided safe passage for refugees through Turkey into Europe.
In recent years it’s been trodden by 100,000s refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. They pass through in search of asylum from countries wrecked by war, poverty and climate change. But that’s all over now. Greece has raised the drawbridge and Orestiada has become a bastion of Fortress Europe.
The fence was built by the right-wing Samaras administration in 2012. 12.5km of 13ft tall razor wire fencing complete with heat sensors now block this entry point, and over a thousand special police officers have been deployed to guard the Evros border. Clearly the austerity regime spares no expense when the threat of immigration is concerned. The land on both sides is designated a ‘controlled military zone’ and when we visited we were under constant scrutiny by our police escort and two stern-faced soldiers.
Whilst the militarisation of the border has achieved a sharp reduction in ‘irregular crossings’ here, it has forced more refugees to cross the perilous Aegean Sea, where soaring numbers of people are drowning in their quest for asylum. As one young Kurdish refugee told us, ‘no one endangers their children’s lives unless they have to. We have to. To stay is death or slavery.’
Boats have been going down in the Aegean and claiming double-figure casualties since 2012. From September of this year there has been an astronomical surge in sea crossings and the death toll is rising sharply. 20 October set a new record, with over 10,000 arrivals in a single day. The following week, as over 50,000 people attempted the crossing, at least 50 people drowned in just 72 hours. 17 were infants. Another 6 infants drowned along with five others when their boat sank on Sunday 1 November. Many more have drowned since.
We put this to Orestiada’s police chief, Pashalis Syritoudis. He has played a leading role in border control in the Evros region. He is an officious looking man, impeccably smart, with neat grey hair and a humourless face. ‘This operation has had very impressive results’ he told us proudly. He went through the stats: 28,000 were arrested in 2011, and 23,000 in 2012. But with the fence, 2013 saw just 492 arrests. To him this was a clear barometer of success: fewer arrests mean fewer refugees attempting to cross his border.
We pointed out that following his operations, drownings have increased in the Aegean. Syritoudis was un-phased: ‘We are obligated to protect the borders of the EU. So this is what we do.’ He then added as an afterthought, ‘Of course we don’t like what’s going on in the islands and we hope for a political solution.’ When we asked him what that solution might look like, he became irritated: ‘I cannot answer a political matter. I do whatever the headquarters tell me.’
We then questioned him on the widespread reports of illegal pushbacks in the Evros. Tales of the pushbacks are commonplace in the camps, which might have something to do with why journalists are forbidden to interview refugees there. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International recently published reports of refugees who managed to cross the Evros being robbed, beaten and forced back into Turkey by unidentified men in violation of international law.
Syritoudis was dismissive at first. ‘The Greek police doesn’t approve and doesn’t use these methods… these claims about push backs are part of a general plan to unfairly accuse the police.’ When we asked if anyone else might be responsible for these abuses, he was categorical: No. If that were happening in his jurisdiction, he’d know about it.
Despite these operations, some refugees do manage to cross the Evros river into Greece where they are arrested and detained at the First Reception Centre on the outskirts of a nearby village, Fylakio. The centre was established in 2013 to hold people during their asylum applications. It was supposed to get the refugees out of prison and into a more humane facility providing medical, legal and psychosocial support.
We visited the Frist Reception Centre and interviewed its Director, Christos Christakoudis. We had read damning reports from 2014 that criticised its inhumane and degrading conditions. And for a reception centre designed to eliminate the need for prisons, it looks an awful lot like the detention centre next door. The perimeter bristles with razor wire, studded with armed guards and angry dogs.
Christos greeted us warmly, dressed casually in jeans and T-shirt. We immediately asked if we could see where the refugees live, but their huts were fenced off in a separate section of the facility. They were unable to leave their caged area, and we were not allowed in. All we could do was observe them on the other side of the fence. As the refugees saw us approach, they excitedly huddled to the fence to talk to us, clearly not used to visitors. ‘Reporter? BBC?’ asked one man, eager to tell us his story. We mimed to him that we were not allowed to speak. Another inmate beseeched us repeatedly: ‘It is no good here. Like a prison’ and ‘Police bad! Where is UN?’ One young boy told us quietly ‘I want to run away.’
We later learnt these particular refugees were Yazidi, a group that has suffered extreme brutality at the hands of ISIS in northern Iraq. Now they find themselves imprisoned in the place where democracy was born.
We asked Christos why the refugees had to be locked up. Was this appropriate for victims of war and torture, for women and children? Christos explained it was in their best interests. ‘Where will those people stay? Who will manage their food if you have an open place? … If those people are in the open air, you cannot provide for them.’
We were unconvinced and pressed the matter; Greek law demands detention be a last resort. His next argument was lack of resources: ‘If we were well organised as a state, as a country, if we had the funding to support open reception centres, of course. But according to my experience, I don’t think it is something that can happen.’
Greek officials have previously admitted to deliberately and systematically subjecting refugees to degrading conditions as a disincentive; part of the brutal logic of border control. Perhaps this is the real reason the First Reception Centre is set up like a prison.
As for Christos himself, he is clearly a well-intentioned man. But like many in authority, he works with a deeply ingrained sense of paternalism: it is not only his duty, but his right to decide what’s in the refugees’ best interests. If it was European citizens in there, we’d all be calling it a breach of human rights and civil liberties. For them, it’s called the ‘asylum service.’
In opposition, Syriza condemned the fence. In power, it has so far failed to bring it down. In the face of so many deaths at sea, the possibility has finally been raised – but that was dependent on a wider EU deal and before the Paris bombings. Now, France is demanding the deployment of ‘rapid response teams’ of border guards to the Greek-Turkish frontier and the screening of all refugees entering from Turkey for terrorist links.
While world leaders ramp up the War on Terror rhetoric, countless refugees, deprived of safe passage, will keep drowning in Evros and the Agean, to be buried in unnamed and overcrowded graves. We did eventually manage to track down the Monument for Refugees in Orestiada. It stands hidden in a dilapidated, backstreet crossroads. A lonely symbol of the town’s forgotten past.
The December/January issue of Red Pepper is out now and contains a report from the Greek island of Lesbos, where hundreds of thousands of refugees are passing through in their journey to the European mainland – get a subscription.