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The 24-person column had broken into four parts: In the front, there was a man carrying his young daughter on his back; the tail was four men carrying a makeshift stretcher. They had made it by wrapping a blanket around two pipes so they could carry a diabetic woman who was feeling faint. Their journey had started five days earlier in Afrin, northern Syria. Now they were in the northeastern Greek region of Evros, walking along a rural road linking the villages of Pythio and Rigio. They said were going to keep walking until someone picked them up.
“We had no choice; we had to leave after the fighting began,” said Kamal Ibrahim, a Kurd, talking about Turkey's invasion. “It wasn't hard to reach Greece,” he added, swatting away a mosquito.
The group had sat down at the side of the road so they could catch their breath when an unmarked white van belonging to the Hellenic Police appeared. It was too small to take all 24 people to the identification center, but as it waited for a second van to come, another group of 13 people emerged from the outskirts of Pythio, among them a father carrying a baby in a pouch.
It was just another dawn at the gateway to Europe.
The Evros border has seen an unusual spike in activity over the past few weeks and according to the Greek branch of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), overland arrivals in April outstripped those coming by sea for the first time since the start of the refugee crisis in 2015. According to official figures, more than 2,700 people were registered last month in Evros, against 5,700 in all of 2017.
Kathimerini was in the area that links the villages of Rigio, Pythio, Petrades, Prangi and Isaakio for two days and encountered more than 100 newly arrived refugees and migrants. The majority claimed to be Kurds from Afrin and said they had arrived within the last two weeks, paying at least 1,500 euros each to smugglers to arrange the trip from Turkey to Greece.
Neither Turkish border guards nor adverse weather slowed their progress. They were not even put off in late March when 500 hectares around Pythio was flooded after the river's locks were opened to control rising water levels.
“How do they do it? Don't the Turks spot them?” asked Evangelos Sakalis, a local trying to communicate with a group of refugees who turned up in his village. “They say there's no one at the border. A couple of days ago we had a couple, both teachers. They said they were Gulenists [in favor of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen] and that they were escaping the unbearable situation in their country.”
Loqman Kourabdo said he chose the Evros crossing because policing along the border has become lax. He worked at a textile factory in Afrin that was abandoned when the Turkish invasion began. “Other people moved into our house as soon as we moved out,” he said.
The 38-year-old added that he was planning to join his sister who had been staying at a camp in Thessaloniki for the past two years with her four daughters. “She traveled by sea and reached Lesvos at first. She paid half of what we did, but there are a lot of police in Izmir right now so we couldn't risk the [sea] crossing. That's why we came via the river,” explained Kourabdo.
Like dozens of other refugees we saw walking along the road, Kourabdo was basically going without a solid plan. On days when arrivals are in their hundreds, it can take as many as five hours before a police van shows up. That was the case a few days before our trip to the area, when more than 200 people had crossed the river. Some followed the train tracks and ended up in the larger village of Didymoteicho further south. Others made their way between the smaller villages right on the border as they waited to be picked up and issued a temporary permit that allows them to stay in the country while their asylum application is being processed.
On the narrow road running beside the train tracks and linking Pythio to Petrades, we came across Michalis Nikolarakis, a beekeeper who has lived in the area for the past five years. “They come by here, on the tracks,” he said.
“They'll ask for some water or a bite to eat. They'll even walk out into the fields to ask the farmers on their tractors for some food. I used to alert the border guards whenever someone showed up and they'd respond in just a few minutes. They're a lot slower now. Whenever I do call them they say they don't have enough vehicles or room. They're doing what they can,” he added.
It was still very early in the morning when Stavros Simoglou threw open the windows of his home in Pythio. He looked at the nearby train tracks and the muddy fields around them, and then at a hill just across the river – that's how close Turkey is. Three people appeared to have been resting in his garden for some time. Two were sitting in the shade of a tree and the third was hosing mud off his shoes.
“A similar thing happened years ago. This is the first place they come across when they enter Greece. They don't cause any problems; they just want to be on their way,” said the 65-year-old local. “No one runs away if life is good. No one abandons their country without reason. They're looking for paradise, but they don't know they won't find it here.”
Many of his fellow villagers help these passers-by in whatever way they can. As we spoke with Simoglou, we saw another resident leading a woman with an infant in her arms to the village cafe. She bought her a bread ring and gave her a glass of water, explaining that she keeps two baby bottles at her house for just such cases.
According to an Hellenic Police officer who spoke to Kathimerini on the condition of anonymity, some 90 percent of the new arrivals in Evros have the profile of a refugee rather than an economic migrant, and the majority are Kurds. “We are monitoring the phenomenon closely and believe that it is incidental and will not grow out of control,” he said in regard to the increase in arrivals observed over the past few weeks. He added that within the first days of the spike, the Greek authorities had contacted their Turkish counterparts. They also contacted the relevant European Union agencies to ask for measures to curb the influx.
‘There is a European dimension to the issue and our country is not dealing with it alone,’ says the police officer.
Right now, the EU border agency Frontex has 43 officers working at different posts along the border to help the Greek guards. The Hellenic Police has also assigned an additional 350 officers to the area, of whom 155 are paid via a special European fund for domestic security. According to our police source, a request for offers has been issued for the acquisition of equipment such as off-road vehicles and thermal cameras, which will be paid for with EU funds.
Based on current procedures, any refugees or migrants intercepted at Evros are taken to the village of Fylakio and registered with Police's pre-departure center, which separates undocumented migrants who are immediately slated for deportation, and the Migration Ministry's reception and identification center. Officials there take down their personal details and fingerprints and issue them a permit that allows them to continue on their journey if they are not slated for deportation. During our visit, however, both facilities were over capacity.
It was a Tuesday afternoon and there were four buses waiting outside the pre-departure center to transfer 230 people. This particular group of mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Palestinians was not going to an official reception center as they claimed they would be staying with friends and relatives.
One of the drivers told Kathimerini that those who could afford to pay the 90-euro ticket would be taken to Athens, those who had 50 euros would get off in Thessaloniki and those who didn't have enough money for either option would be dropped off at the train station in Oresteiada. About 15 people spent that night outside the station waiting for the first morning trains. It is a common sight in the area. The following evening, another 30 refugees spent the night outside the town's intercity bus station.
Back at Fylakio 30 Turkish dissidents were waiting their turn to get on a bus to Athens. Two of them were teachers who had worked in schools runs by Gulen, who is in self-exile in the United States and whom Ankara accuses of orchestrating the July 2016 coup attempt. In the first three months of 2018, 178 applications for asylum by Turkish citizens were submitted in northern Greece (Fylakio and Thessaloniki) out of 393 nationwide.
“I was fired 20 days after the failed coup,” said the husband of one of the teachers, a civil servant with a degree in computer engineering who wished to remain unnamed. He said that he was registered and released within two days.
“I am not political and I do not support violence,” he added.