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Caught up in the party atmosphere, the people of Edirne were counting down the days to the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr. On the main promenade in the downtown area, well-dressed passers-by took photographs, young women shopped for scarves and street peddlers sold Turkish flags. Just a few meters away, however, a completely different crowd was trying to get its message across.
Hundreds of refugees and migrants were holding a protest rally at Ilhan Koman Park. They held their babies and children aloft and shouted, in unison, “Germany, Germany, Germany!” and “Greece, Greece, Greece!” One of them approached the TV cameras with a cardboard placard reading “We love Merkel,” referring to the German chancellor.
The protest, which began in mid-September, had already been going on for a week. Responding to a call on Facebook via the Crossing No More community, thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and Palestinians had made the almost 250-kilometer trip from Istanbul to Edirne, the last stop, 9 kilometers from the land border with Greece's Evros region. Some traveled from refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon when they heard of the campaign. The key demand was for the gateway to Europe to open so they wouldn't have to turn to the smugglers in Izmir and Bodrum and take their chances with the “boats of death.”
“We heard that this was the cheapest and a safe way to cross into Europe,” said 26-year-old Syrian Serhan Elafi, who traveled to Edirne from Lebanon.
“If they don't allow us through, they are leading us to the smugglers, who will send us to sea, take our money or drown us.”
The protest movement caused concern on the Greek side. More patrol vehicles were dispatched to Evros and locations on the border around the town of Orestiada were buttressed with more police. The customs officials at Kastanies were worried about developments. “If one passes the gate, thousands will follow,” one of the customs officials told Kathimerini.
The governor of Edirne, Dursun Ali Sahin, took emergency measures to thwart the refugees' plan.
He evacuated many of the town's hotels and returned 1,500 refugees and migrants to Istanbul, ordered a police cordon to block off the national highway leading to the entry with Bulgaria and averted a gathering of some 7,500 protesters in the town. “They had one ambition only: to reach Greece,” he said when we met him at his office. He was flanked by two Turkish flags, the wall behind him adorned with portraits of Kemal Ataturk, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Around 2,500 refugees and migrants managed to stay in the town but they have become trapped there. A few hundred camped at Ilhan Koman Park. The rest were led to an arena on the outskirts of town used for a traditional form of wrestling in which the athletes' bodies are covered in oil. A makeshift camp was set up in the locker rooms, stands and field, with local authorities providing food.
The governor initially gave them three days to evacuate the premises. When the deadline arrived, though, he had a change of heart. He prayed with them and tried to explain that they were on a futile mission. Police negotiators and a team from the Interior Ministry made daily visits and tried to convince the crowd to stop marching. They flew three refugee representatives to Ankara to hold talks with Davutoglu. “The voices of our Syrian brothers have been heard by the entire world. They must now return to a normal life,” Davutoglu said. The following day, a video of the meeting was shown on a giant screen at the arena.
As the days passed, the refugees' exhaustion and frustration started becoming apparent in their faces and reactions.
The group protesting at the park started to fall apart. Their representatives could no longer coordinate them. One of them was lambasted by a group of young Syrians when he tried to explain that they were at a dead end and had to leave the town and join the others at the arena camp.
A number of families started to board the buses rented by the Interior Ministry to make the trip back to the cities from where they had started their journeys. “We will rent hotels to secure their accommodation,” Sahin said.
Last week, Turkish police remanded five activists near Istanbul who are suspected of inciting another group of refugees not to cooperate with Turkish authorities and to keep marching to Edirne. The park there was eventually evacuated but hundreds remained at the arena – they were not ready to give up.
“I have made preparations for my family to stay here for at least two weeks,” said 28-year-old Syrian Soumar Kriker. He had just recently traveled from Jordan to Edirne to accompany his two sisters and their children to Europe, with Germany as their final destination, where a relative was waiting for them. They had originally planned to reach Izmir and then cross by boat to one of the Greek islands of Lesvos or Chios. Then they heard it would be possible to make the trip overland.
Turkish historian and writer Ismail Keskin has been watching the Edirne campaign with a lot of interest. In a recently published novel he tells the story of a large family of Syrians, much like Soumar's, trying to cross the bloated Evros River from Edirne into Greece on smugglers' directions. Only one of them survived.
“After [Angela] Merkel announced that Germany will be taking in thousands of refugees, it became a utopian destination for Syrians,” he said. “That was then followed by a suspension of the Schengen agreement by Germany. Maybe she gave them unrealistic hopes.”
Some 2 million Syrians live in Turkey today. A law passed in 2014 grants them certain privileges such as free healthcare and admission to university without entrance exams, but not full refugee status.
Keskin, a resident of Istanbul, has witnessed several cases of refugees being taken advantage of. He says that apartment rental rates have doubled in some neighborhoods since the Syrians started to move in. Some of those who had planned to settle in Turkey later decided to move on west after discovering that they would earn less than the minimum wage at factories.
Soumar waited for a breakthrough from the European Union summit on the refugee crisis in Brussels last Wednesday.
The coordinators of the Edirne campaign had created the impression that the EU would reach some kind of specific decision on the refugees trapped in Edirne. This did not happen. The main actual decisions to come from the meeting were to help the countries neighboring Syria and to increase dialogue with Turkey.
The day after the summit, the refugees at Edirne's wrestling arena started leaving. Soumar, like dozens of other refugees, still had some hope of making the crossing, but he did not know that what was waiting for them on the land border between Greece and Turkey was a 10.3-kilometer fence topped with security cameras and reinforced with barbed wire.
“I studied the route on my GPS but I'm not going alone; we're all going together. I know it's hard but I don't know why,” he said. When we told him abut the fence, his reaction was: “Really? How tall is it?”
A military jeep was waiting for us just outside the village of Nea Vyssa, on the Greek side of the Evros border, at the point where the asphalt ends and the dirt road begins, to take us to the fence. It was just a short journey to the border, where the double fence rises 2.5 meters on the Turkish side and 3 meters on the Greek side. In February, a part of the fence was damaged by floods and was repaired in September by the caretaker government. There are plans to construct floodgates so this does not happen again.
The river is patrolled by police, thermal vision security cameras keep guard at night, and vehicle patrols can be seen along the roads. The permanent force of Evros (based in Orestiada and Alexandroupoli) consists of 400 border guards and 250 police officers dispatched in the last couple of years. An operation is also under way until October 14 called REX 2015 (RABIT Exercise 2015), which consists of 80 members of the EU border agency Frontex and Greek police officers.
Since its construction in December 2012 (at a cost of 5.5 million euros), the fence has proved impregnable but has also shifted the migration flow to the islands of the Aegean. “In 2010 we made 36,000 arrests in Orestiada, of which 26,000 were on the land border, while this year we have made just 1,300 arrests so far,” explains Paschalis Syritoudis, police chief of Orestiada. More than 110,000 migrants and refugees have landed on the shores of Lesvos alone so far this year.
“Before the fence was built they would come through in droves. We gave them water, bread, shoes, anything we could,” said Christos Kyriakidis, the owner of a cafe at Nea Vyssa who has been observing developments at Edirne – an area which has seen numerous battles and sieges over the centuries, while also serving as the crossing point during the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923.
Fewer refugees and migrants may stop by Kyriakidis's cafe these days, but the daily police reports from the Orestiada and Alexandroupoli stations almost always contain at least one arrest of a smuggler. A few days before our visit, police had flagged down a vehicle with fake license plates on a rural Evros road. The 41-year-old driver did not pull over. He dumped the vehicle in a narrow lane and tried to escape through the fields on foot. He was arrested and a subsequent search of the vehicle revealed 12 undocumented migrants hiding inside.
“We have always been under pressure from international criminal organizations that are well networked and have people in Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece,” said Syritoudis, explaining that Greek and Bulgarian smugglers are usually the last link in the chain, the people who drive the vehicles that pick up the migrants and refugees at the border and take them further inland. In the first eight months of this year, 115 suspected smugglers were arrested in Eastern Macedonia and Thrace.
Patrols and security are also stringent on the Turkish side of the border. “Thousands of soldiers guard the borders with Greece and Turkey to prevent illegal people smuggling,” said Sahin, the governor of Edirne.
But the networks always find a way to sneak past the patrols and roadblocks. During our visit last week we saw a family of Syrians suddenly emerging from a field.
Laden with heavy backpacks, they stopped for a few minutes to catch their breath at the side of a country road. One of the men in the group gave the signal to keep going: “Germany!” he shouted, and the troop started marching north.