Author: Marianna Karakoulaki (Thessaloniki), Dimitris Tosidis
A year after the EU-Turkey Deal came into force, thousands of refugees remain stranded in Greece. The most desperate try to reach Europe by any means. Marianna Karakoulaki and Dimitris Tosidis report from Thessaloniki.
Last year Idomeni – the small village next to the Greek-Macedonian border that had become a symbol of hope for thousands of refugees – was packed with people. A few days earlier the EU-Turkey deal had come into effect, yet thousands of people still hoped the borders would open.
Nowadays, Idomeni is empty; a sign with the message “Hope” and the fence between the two countries are the only reminders that this place once was Europe’s largest refugee camp. From time to time foreign volunteers visit the area yet they are soon taken to the police station in the village for questioning. Journalists need authorization from the Greek authorities and are escorted by officers of the Greek army.
Frontex – the European border and coast guard agency – recently deployed officers in order to assist the Greek authorities in preventing irregular border crossings in the area. Frontex’s current mission has 40 officers including specialists in identifying forged documents and officers who patrol a large part of the Greek-Macedonian border as well as the freight trains that pass by in order to locate people who may try to cross to the neighboring country.
“There is some movement toward northern Europe, the numbers are not terribly high but in the first couple of months of this year we are talking about a couple of thousands of people,” Frontex spokesperson Ewa Moncure told DW.
Crossing with GPS
Mohammed, a 24-year-old engineering student from Syria, is waiting for his relocation to northern Europe. His friends call him Mr. Smiley as he always has a smile on his face despite his ordeals. He arrived in Greece with his brother before the closure of the borders. When they arrived they each took a paper with a number; that paper indicated their turn to cross the borders. His brother entered Macedonia yet the border closed the following day and Mohammed was left behind. After staying in Idomeni for a while he decided to cross the border illegally to find his brother.
“I crossed the border with the help of some friends and by using my phone’s GPS. We walked for nine hours, we crossed the river near the border, and once we were in Macedonia we went around the town of Gevgelija because there were too many police officers in the town. As soon we found the train track we followed it and we arrived at the refugee camp in Gevgelija,” he told DW.
After months of waiting Mohammed and his brother decided to return to Greece and apply for the relocation program; They qualify because they’re from Syria – others are not so lucky.
Hundreds if not thousands of refugees have gone “missing” from the Greek refugee camps; some have already reached Europe, some went to Turkey on their own, others have returned to Syria.
Behind the infamous Softex refugee camp near Thessaloniki, freight trains leave regularly for European destinations – usually Germany. The refugees here live inside the old, rusty train wagons and take food from the nearby camp; they have no money to go elsewhere and no chance of being relocated or receiving asylum in Greece as the majority of them are from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. They’re all waiting to find the exact moment and the right opportunity to jump on a train in a bid to reach northern Europe. When DW visited, the Greek authorities had just stopped around 20 people who tried to board one of the trains.
“I will try but this is very dangerous,” said one young Algerian man.
The art of smuggling
Then there are those who can afford to use smugglers to get them into Europe. Despite the EU-Turkey deal and the policing of the borders throughout Europe, the closure of the Balkan route has helped the smuggling business to blossom once again.
An abandoned building close to Thessaloniki’s center has become a hub for homeless refugees who cannot access the camps and for those who wait for their smugglers’ signal to move forward.
Abdullah, a 23-year-old Afghan refugee and a pre-med student, grew up in Pakistan; his family fled there from the Taliban before he was born. When the Pakistani government took a harsher line toward Afghans in the country, he went back to Afghanistan, but two months later he decided to leave. After a treacherous journey he reached Greece via the Evros River, the natural border between Greece and Turkey.
At first he tried to go to Italy via a boat from the port of Patras in southern Greece but he was arrested and put in jail for a few days. When he was released the police gave him a paper which allowed him to stay in Greece for a month and restricted him from going to border areas and Athens. His only chance now is to apply for asylum in Greece. Yet he still wants to try to reach Europe.
“I went to Athens and I paid a smuggler 3,400 euros ($3,620) in order to get a passport, but I am still waiting for my smuggler to call me,” he says. “I will wait and I will keep trying, it’s the only chance I have. I want to go to France and meet my cousin who I grew up with,” he continues.
As DW talks to Abdullah, a new group of Afghan refugees arrive from Thessaloniki. They claim they were severely beaten by authorities at the Bulgarian border and were stripped of their clothing and left with nothing but their underwear.
Abdullah is stressed and worried. Fifteen days have passed since he paid thousands of euros to receive his fake passport but he hasn’t received any news from his smugglers. The memo he got from the police giving him only a month to stay legally in Greece expired a day earlier, and he is afraid that he will be apprehended by the authorities. He is desperate for answers regarding his status.
“If anyone asks for my advice on making this journey, I will tell them not to come. It is very dangerous here,” he says, his voice trembling.