Jewish Journal

Crossing the Evros: Last chance for Syrian refugees

The quest for a better life often ends a short distance from the desired frontier

by Emma Beals, The Media Line

Posted on Feb. 18, 2014 at 11:23 am

Evros river

Evros river

This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

The bridge across the Evros River is rife with tourists. Couples and bus tours full of middle-aged women pose for photographs on the bridge while cafe balconies bustle with visitors taking tea and enjoying the late winter sun over a drink. The river is the life-blood of the tourist industry here, but in Edirne is also the staging point for refugees from Syria in Turkey who want to cross by land into Greece or Bulgaria. For them, the river is the last, and often lethal, barrier to finding their way to a better life in Europe.

Nearly a kilometre wide at some points, the river is a fast flowing body of water. Most refugees cross in the dark of night in order to avoid being detected by the Turkish army or the European border police, Frontex, who, along with the Turkish army, detain thousands of Syrians as they try to cross the river each year.

“You don't pay for the boat,” Kawa explains. “You pay for the car on the other side. You have five minutes from when you get to the shore to reach the car. If you're not in it, they go without you.”

Kalan and his friend Hawar are back in Istanbul after an unsuccessful attempt to cross from Greece into Turkey. They're Kurdish, from the northern part of Syria known as Rajava. Hawar is keen to escape after being imprisoned and tortured in Iraqi Kurdistan, having left Rojava for a better life there. He hopes to reach Europe and bring his family out after him.

Edirne, itself, is heaving with Syrians. A huge, newly built detention center in an old army barracks is located on the outskirts of town. It's heavily guarded and the border police aren't pleased to greet visitors. Large trucks rumble through town loaded with rock.  A local man explains, “That's for the wall.”

In December 2012, Greece built a wall along its land border to stem the flow of migrants in to its country. The European border agency, Frontex, reports that the difficulties in crossing into Greece due to the increased border presence has resulted in an influx in migrants choosing to cross into Bulgaria, with a threefold increase in numbers during the second and third quarters of 2013. Greece, however, is still receiving the second highest number of illegal entries of any European Union member state, behind Italy.

The crossing itself is dangerous, but what might happen to refugees once they're caught is even more terrifying.  PRO ASYL, a human rights organization for refugees, produced a report late last year based on dozens of interviews, which accused the Greek police of pushing boats of Syrians back across the Evros and into the sea. In the report, the group alleges that after being caught on the Greek side of the river, they were either pushed back or returned to their boat; and after being detained on land, sent back to Turkey.

“When taken back to the river, refugees told PRO ASYL, they were ordered not to make any noise or move and were allegedly threatened with guns. They were forced to enter their boat with the policemen and were turned back to the Turkish side. In many cases, interviewees reported that while being pushed back, the police had tied their hands behind their backs with plastic handcuffs,” the report says. 

For those with a visa the crossing is simple. A few kilometres down the road is a legal border crossing into Greece, in the other direction to Bulgaria. Within minutes anyone with the right papers finds themselves in a small border town where the Duty Free store is the most popular location.

A small road weaves along the river on the Greek side and before long closes into a protected military zone. Locals sit in small groups on the river banks and fish; anyone not fishing, or unable to produce identification, is told to move along.

Evidence of the dangerous journeys that take place is everywhere. A boat is tied to the shore on the Greek side, waiting to ferry Syrians across the river later in the evening. The fields are littered with water bottles and the remnants of small fires lit by those who have crossed during the freezing winter nights.

The attempt by migrants remaining anonymous to cross the river a couple of days ago was thwarted by the increased guards on the river, but that doesn't mean their journey wasn't traumatic and dangerous. Having paid a smuggler, they set off from Istanbul as part of a large group, all trying to cross into Greece. Upon arrival at a location just outside of Edirne, they were held in an out house on a farm and told to wait.

Hours went by and the smuggler returned, telling the hopeful migrants that, “You can't cross tonight. There are too many patrols.” Their hopes were dashed. They remained in the building all day and into the next night, unable to leave for fear of being seen. Again, the smuggler returned and said the crossing was too dangerous, that they would be caught. This time he said they must return to Istanbul and tried to charge each of them an additional100 euro [about $137] for the return drive to Istanbul. When they refused they were chased out of the barn by the farm’s owner.

They ran through the fields trying to find a way back to the city. One farmer threatened to call the police but they told him they would implicate him in a smuggling ring if he did. He let them go. Finally, a local resident took pity on them and arranged for three cars to bring them to Edirne where they caught a bus back to Istanbul where they're waiting to try again.

Hawar is unable to return to Syria and isn't welcome in the neighbouring countries. He has survived torture and is haunted by his past. His enterprise, trying to get to Europe, is giving him a focus and keeps the memories at bay – for now. “I'll keep trying,” he says. “I have no choice.”

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