Tales of Greece’s wolves and police

Migrants using a rubber boat to reach the Greek side of the Evros River in Edirne, Turkey - 27 November 2020 (AA)

Migrants using a rubber boat to reach the Greek side of the Evros River in Edirne, Turkey - 27 November 2020 (AA)

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Enab Baladi – Diya Assi

“A crossing point” is what Istanbul means to the fed-up young Khaled Mohammad, 23, who came to the Turkish city from Damascus seven months ago in January 2021, hoping to catch the wave of migration to Europe.

Mohammad, who hails from the southern city of Daraa, waits in his residence, which is a small temporary room in the Fatih district of Istanbul, for a call from the smuggler that would mean that he has reached the threshold of the first step.

Istanbul, and all other Turkish states for that matter, denied Mohammad the right to be seen on their land, as the young man roamed the land discreetly while carrying a document stating that he could obtain a temporary protection card (Kimlik). However, he says that he did not obtain it, nor will he ever do.

He is torn between heaven and earth, without an address, an identity, or a homeland to be relied upon in times of distress. For this, Mohammad tries to find himself a foothold that gives him a piece of paper proving that he has a right to live and perhaps something even remotely close to stability that is simmering on the flames of a fickle fate.

First spark of enthusiasm

Less than three days upon his arrival to Istanbul, Mohammad made his first attempt to cross to Greece via the land route from the city of Edirne in the northwestern part of the European part of Turkey, separated from Greece by the border river of Evros with a length of 530 km, of which 230 km constitute the only land border shared with Greece.

Mohammad actually crossed the river and took the “short” road to Europe on foot, hoping to reach his destination in a few days. But his journey was shorter than his way, as he was captured by Greek Commandos on the same day, forcibly returning him to the Turkish side of the border.

The story does not end there, as Mohammad tried over and over again.

Mohammad tells Enab Baladi his story and that of hundreds of others returning from Greece to Turkey. A story of hope and pain, in which the only concern was the risk of being deported to Syria at every attempt.

The half-hour that Mohammad spent in Greece had ended at the moment of arrest, only for the return process to begin. The Commandos confiscated his belongings, such as the bag in which he put food and the cover he used to sleep in the forests, and other things he carried, such as his phone and money. Then they took him and his group to prison barefoot after being forced to take off their shoes.

Mohammad remained imprisoned for seven hours until it was filled with migrants who were waiting for salvation, standing on their feet due to lack of space. However, the overcrowding foretells that the moment of détente is imminent, according to Mohammad, as it means that the Commandos will then begin emptying the prison to return the migrants to the Turkish border.

Multiple attempts, one fate

Driven by his enthusiasm to reach Europe, Mohammad made another attempt almost a week after his first, only to end in failure. But these disappointments did not dampen his resolve, and he made a third attempt about two weeks later.

Just like all the previous ones, this attempt has also failed. It was as if the border guards were waiting for him at the entrances to the roads. Before winter made the asylum journey almost impossible, Mohammad decided to make a fourth attempt three weeks later, which faced the same fate.

Winter came, and Mohammad sat waiting for the appropriate weather to add to his previous four attempts, a fifth one in late May. But the same scenario was repeated; being placed under arrest in a detention center in Greece, then forcibly returned in large cars to the Turkish border and being sent on rubber boats back to the Turkish side.

Upon his recent return with his group of nearly 300 people, Mohammad noticed good treatment from Turkish border guards, as the guards lit a fire for them to keep warm and gave them shoes instead of those they had forcibly taken off in Greece.

The principle of non-refoulement is a cornerstone of international refugee protection, prohibiting the forced deportation of refugees to territories where they would be at risk of persecution. It is stipulated in article 33 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, a fundamental principle from which no deviation is permitted.

The principle of non-refoulement is customary international law and, as such, is binding on all states, including those not party to the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.

Destiny is in the details

In his second attempt, Mohammad was able to cross the forest and the highway (the Autobahn), which is the beginning of the Greek inland. Mohammad crossed four villages along the road and then reached the so-called “loading point” eight hours later. He waited for the car that would take him to Thessaloniki in northern Greece.

Had the car arrived minutes earlier, that might have transformed the roadmap. However, the Commandos soon discovered Mohammad and his group’s whereabouts and arrested them, bringing them a step back on their initial track.

On his third attempt, Mohammad arrived at the “loading point,” but the car did not show up on time. Mohammad and those with him waited four days, hoping that the car would arrive until they ran out of food and water. They then had to surrender themselves to the police voluntarily.

Ahmed al-Deiri, 28, spent eight hours of each day for 16 straight days walking in the forests of Greece, taking the low-cost “long” route.

Al-Deiri, of the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, also spoke about his long, troubled journey, which lasted 16 days on foot, to the first “loading point” where the car came to take them to their other destination.

Al-Deiri waited three days for the car to come. However, he was not lucky enough to ride the first time as there was no room in the car, and he had to stay another day.

One day would not have made a difference to al-Deiri, who waited so long, hoping to pass the last point in Greece. When he boarded the smuggler’s car the next day, it was not long before he was caught by the intelligence services that arrested them based on suspicions and then returned them to Turkey.

Shepherd and wolves; Sheep not safe

Mohammad lived an adventure in his first attempt. After crossing the main road and the forest in Greece and climbing a mountain at 3 a.m., he was confronted by three wolves, accompanied by some terrified families. But the people leading the trip, known as “guides” and being mostly Pakistanis, were accustomed to dealing with such threats.

The “guides,” who were three persons, ordered Mohammad and his group to make a small circle, then surrounded them and set fire using pieces of cloth they hung on wooden sticks. Two of them began to drive away the wolves until the third could proceed with the group toward a second starting point.

Mohammad described the situation as “arduous” between the woes and ruggedness of the mountain road and the exhaustion from all the walking and their fear that they would be offerings to wolves or be caught by the Greek guards.

In contrast to this adventure, wolves were not a concern in Ahmed al-Deiri’s story, but the shepherd himself was the immediate danger. Before going to Greece, al-Deiri was instructed to change the way if he heard the shepherd walking the mountains to feed his cattle. This shepherd guides the authorities to the migrants’ whereabouts when he observes them, a task he undertakes informally.

Al-Deiri and his companions were fed up with changing their place several times as the shepherd’s voice approached them, calling the situation a “chase.” However, he eventually succumbed to the inevitability of confronting the shepherd. In an attempt to paint a picture of what happened, he said, “We hid, but the shepherd found us, and he was before us. Frightened, he looked at us and asked: Afghans? Syrians, we answered him. He said: “Well, we are not afraid of Syrians.”

After the shepherd showed signs of friendliness, al-Deiri and his companions asked him to take them by car if possible. But the shepherd refused to take legal responsibility for that and instead offered them milk and food. Al-Deiri thanked Allah, saying, “The shepherd turned out to be a good guy,” likely of Turkish origins because he speaks the language fluently.

Facing the odds for a better life

From the beginning of this year until last April, Greek authorities barred about 40,000 migrants from entering the country through the Evros River, as stated by the Greek Minister of Civil Protection, Takis Theodorikakos. Crossings continue to increase in conjunction with tighter security to prevent migrants from entering the country “illegally.”

In order to protect the Greek border and “prevent illegal migration flows,” Theodorikakos signed a decree on 1 May to appoint another 250 border guards at points where migrants crossed.

Theodorikakos noted that Turkey’s attempt to open the border in March 2020 was not spontaneous. According to al-Deiri, this was an organized operation by the Turkish authorities, who had a clear intention of violating Greece’s borders widely by using illegal migrants of tens of thousands at the time.

From April to the end of November 2021, 143.472 people were banned from entering Greece, compared with 98,798 people in the same period of 2020, Theodorikakos said. Almost a thousand people have successfully entered Greece from the beginning of this year until late May.

As they cross the river, migrants are subjected to violent practices by Greek border guards to repel them and return them to the Turkish side. They sometimes end up left on small islands in the middle of the river without help or assistance.

Greek authorities are preventing humanitarian organizations and the media from approaching the Evros area, which they describe as a “military zone.” Meanwhile, Turkish border guards are forced to intervene and rescue migrants, according to the Infomigrants news website.

There are harrowing stories of people who lost their lives while trying to cross into Greece, the reason for which is Greek police brutality, the long journey, and the difficult conditions. In 2021 alone, 51 people lost their lives in the Evros region, according to Greek coroner Pavlos Pavlidis.

According to local coroners, most victims are unidentified and are buried in local Muslim cemeteries. Human Rights Watch says one common reason for such incidents is the loss of control over the vehicle when smugglers try to avoid arrest during a police chase.

 

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