The Evros: A perilous crossing on the threshold of Europe

PEPLO, Greece – The European Union’s border winds slowly through fields of cotton, tobacco and sunflowers. There’s a nature reserve nearby where endangered birds find sanctuary and local authorities dream of nature tourism ventures. But the Evros River, 30 meters of water separating Greece from Turkey, is often a final, dreaded barrier for thousands of exhausted immigrants desperate to land jobs in Europe. On their nighttime crossings, refugees face a daunting list of dangers: minefields, army patrols and, sometimes worst of all, the water itself. Twenty-three immigrants from Pakistan, who apparently could not swim, drowned in the Evros – known as the Meric River in Turkey – on September 9 while trying to cross on inflatable dinghies made for children. Soldiers are still looking for three more bodies. This brought the death toll over the past three years to at least 47 immigrants who have drowned in the river or were killed by mines along the border. Despite the risks, the tariffs charged by smugglers apparently continue to climb at one of the busiest trafficking spots into the EU. Palestinian Salah Ayoub handed the last of his $6,000 in savings to a man wearing a ski mask to cross the Evros and made it through the deadly obstacle course, he told Greek police. But his epic journey – made mostly on foot – through Lebanon, Syria and Turkey still came to a bitter end. Just inside the Greek border, he was picked up by a police patrol in June as he was about to be taken to Athens inside the container of a gasoline tanker truck. He is currently in police custody waiting to be deported. «I must have walked about 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles),» said Ayoub, 30. «I sold everything to raise the money for the trip to get to Athens.» Ayoub was born a refugee and grew up in Beirut’s Shatila camp, made known to the world by a massacre in 1982 following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. His new companions at a crowded detention center near the frontier with Turkey make up an A-to-Z of the world’s war zones and countries crushed by past conflict: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Kashmir, Sierra Leone. Over the past decade, illegal crossings have helped build up an immigrant population of about 1 million people in a country of 11 million native-born inhabitants. Many people who make it to Greece, however, move on to other EU countries. Greece is seeking help from the EU to bolster is borders and has provided police with night-vision equipment and motorcycle units along the 120-kilometer (75-mile) land border between Greece and Turkey. «The (night-vision) cameras help us spot the immigrants from a much greater distance,» said Thanassis Syros, head of a border guard post where the dead Pakistani immigrants were found. «But the smugglers have found new routes where it is easier to hide and some of them have night scopes too,» he said. Regional Police Chief Giorgos Kokkinis said the tougher policing has paid off. The number of immigrants detained in the Evros area dropped from 22,924 in 2001 to 14,280 last year. «The big problem is in Turkey, where many trafficking gangs are based, but lately the situation has improved slightly,» Kokkinis said. But, he added, immigrants willing to risk their lives to reach Europe will not stop. «The Evros had always been a crossing point,» he said. «It used to be drugs. Now it’s people.»

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