In Greece, a river holds tragedy for migrants

For migrants fleeing war or poverty, the river crossing from Turkey to Greece has brought Europe close – perilously so.

Only 10 percent of the bodies recovered from the Evros river are ever identified [Getty]
Alexandroupolis, Greece – Were it not for a white dusting of frost on her cheeks, she would look like she was sleeping. The photograph on the doctor’s computer screen shows a young woman, no more than 30 years old, her afro hair in short plaits that fan out on the medical examiner’s table.
Reaching across his computer, Dr Pavlos Pavlidis takes an envelope out of a drawer and empties the contents onto his desk: a metal bracelet, one ear stud, a leather tag. They were the only possessions she had with her when she froze to death in a field in northern Greece, near the border with Turkey, one night in December 2012.

The Evros river marks the border between Greece and Turkey    [Al Jazeera]

Somewhere in the world – the Democratic Republic of Congo, say, or Eritrea, or maybe Sweden or elsewhere in Greece – there are people who know her name, where she came from and where she was trying to get to. But to Pavlidis, the forensic physician at Alexandroupolis’ general hospital, she is known by a numbered code, plus the date her body was found. The code goes on her body bag, her DNA sample sent to the International Red Cross – and, in the unlikely event that a relative comes to claim them, on the envelope containing her possessions.

Alexandroupolis, in northeastern Greece, is the penultimate stop for migrants trying to pass undetected into the country from its land border with Turkey. For more than a decade, this 150km frontier, mostly formed by the river Evros as it winds down from the Balkan mountains to the Aegean sea, has been a route of choice for tens of thousands of people trying to enter the European Union.
For migrants fleeing war or poverty, the Evros brought Europe tantalisingly close. A day earlier, Panos, a local resident who works with a group of activists who monitor conditions at the border, had showed Al Jazeera a map with some of the main crossing points marked on it.

“People go by boat, or others try to swim,” he said. “Sometimes, they will have arranged for someone to meet them on the Greek side or take them to Athens.”

The crossing is shorter and safer than a rough boat journeys across the Mediterranean – but it can be just as deadly: During winter, hypothermia is the main killer; in the summer, people drown, caught by the river’s fast current. 
Only 10 percent of the bodies recovered are ever identified, says Pavlidis. People travel light; they don’t want to be sent back to their countries of origin, so they don’t carry documents. If they’re separated from the group they are travelling with, the rest – even members of the same family – have to push on without them, for fear of being caught by border guards.
Trickier still, from a physician’s point of view, is the condition in which bodies arrive. The muddy Evros does not give up its dead easily – and parts of a body that has lain in the water for weeks are often reduced to bones.
At the hospital, Pavlidis beckons Al Jazeera into a room across the corridor from his office – the morgue, a windowless room lined with freezers. Laid out on a trolley is the body of a Pakistani man who was found in the Evros in April. He had been in the river for at least 20 days when police fished him out, his face so discoloured that even a close relative could not recognise him. Yet his mother identified him by the necklace he was wearing. Tomorrow she will come to view the body, although it is unlikely she will be able to afford the $6,826 required to take him home.
Pressure to seal the border 
In the summer of 2012, the newly-elected Greek government launched Operation Aspida (“Shield”), part of a range of measures to repulse, detain and expel undocumented migrants. An extra 1,800 police officers were deployed to the Evros, while construction began on a fence (completed in December 2012), equipped with thermal sensors, along sections of the 10.5km border not covered by the river.

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Greece had come under pressure from other EU states to seal its border with Turkey, which Austria’s interior minister declared was “open like a barn door”. Before the 2012 elections, the future Prime Minister Antonis Samaras had campaigned on a strong anti-immigration platform, claiming that Greek cities had been “occupied” by illegal immigrants and should be taken back. 

The new restrictions have led to a sharp drop in the number of crossings at the Evros: 12,556 people were stopped at the border in 2013, compared to 34,084 the previous year. According to records kept at Alexandroupolis hospital, deaths have fallen, too, from a peak of 54 in 2010, to six in 2013.
But while deaths have fallen here, they have risen elsewhere as refugees, the majority from Syria, take more dangerous routes across the Aegean. Scores have drowned in the last year alone: on May 5, for instance, 22 died near the island of Samos when their boat capsized. Giorgos Tsarbapoulos, head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Greece, told Al Jazeera that there is a “need to prioritise the protection of human life over border surveillance,” and that the “vast majority” of new arrivals in Greece were “refugees such as Syrians, Somalis, Eritreans and Palestinians”.
At the Evros itself, there have been allegations of mistreatment of migrants by border police. A report published in November 2013 by the German refugee organisation, Pro Asyl, collected testimonies from refugees who said they had their possessions stolen and were beaten before being pushed back to Turkey – an act that is illegal under Greek, European and international law.
Further research by Amnesty International this year suggested that such push-backs were routine, based on the “sheer volume” of credible testimonies from refugees. (Responding to Amnesty, the Greek police stated that its operations respected the rights of the individuals, that they were consistent with the law – and that an unspecified number of disciplinary inquiries into specific allegations of mistreatment had been launched.)
But there is no guarantee that more people won’t try to cross the Evros in the future. “Migration patterns are unpredictable,” says a spokesperson for the EU border agency, Frontex, pointing out that a new conflict, such as the worsening situation in Iraq, could provoke a new flow of refugees.

According to the UN, last year the number of refugees worldwide was at its highest since World War II, while the number of Syrians in Turkey recently crossed the one million mark for the first time. In May, Evros border police published an open letter in the local newspaper complaining of a lack of vehicles and equipment.
If the crossings start to rise again, it’s likely that bodies will pass by Pavlidis more frequently again, too.
Buried by the village mufti 
Some 80km north of Alexandroupolis, on a hilltop outside the village of Sidiro, a wire fence surrounds a patch of ground around 50sqr m, where the scrub has been cleared away. A few recently-dug mounds of earth give away the purpose of this plot of land.

The migrants’ cemetery in Sidiro [Daniel Trilling/Al Jazeera]

Accessible only by a single road from the main highway along the Evros river, Sidiro is home to Greece’s Turkish-speaking Muslim minority. It is surrounded by steep mountain valleys and until the mid-1990s visitors would have needed a permit to enter. Restrictions on movement have since softened, but even now, taxi drivers in the nearest town are reluctant to take overseas visitors there without a trip to the police station first, to show them that documents are in order.

If a migrant’s body is brought to the hospital at Alexandroupolis and cannot be identified, it is sent to Sidiro to be buried by the village mufti. Many migrants came from majority Muslim countries in Asia and Africa – and so the mufti gives them Muslim funeral rites before they are laid to rest.
Some of these migrants were looking for protection; others wanted to come to Europe for work. All of them felt they had no choice but to take a risky trip across a river. And they are just a fraction of the 23,000 estimated to have died at the EU’s borders since the turn of the millennium.
On the day Al Jazeera visited Sidiro, the mufti was away on business. His villa, which also doubles as the village petrol station, was shuttered and dark. It was midday, and apart from a flock of geese waddling around, the unpaved streets were empty. Villagers were at work in the fields, tending beehives or livestock, or in the mosque, which had just raised the call to prayer.
At the cemetery there was silence except for a breeze lifting the leaves in the trees and the sound of crickets. How many are buried there? Pavlidis said the cemetery had been in use since he began working at the Alexandroupolis hospital 12 years ago – and that during this time he had received almost a thousand bodies. He was keen to stress how each person was tracked, and treated like an individual. “Every death is one history,” said the doctor. Now, they’re part of Europe’s history, too.
Source: Al Jazeera