Would-be immigrants to Europe can go almost anywhere—for a price
IT TAKES a few minutes to cross the Evros river, now the main entry point for illegal immigrants from Asia into Europe, but it can be frightening. On the Turkish side people-smugglers can be armed. In winter the river is fast-flowing and very cold. Groups who pay €300 ($400) a head to cross are packed into rubber dinghies at night. Some migrants get panicky—especially because few know how to swim.
So it is a relief to find friendly faces on the Greek side. Many migrants are briefly arrested, detained or surrender to the police. In most cases they are given a document letting them stay for 30 days. Those who cross near Alexandroupolis go to the railway station, where they may visit the Café Paris and meet a young Moroccan who matches migrants with onward transport. The price for being smuggled from Athens to France in a secret lorry compartment is €4,000. Getting out by aeroplane is “very difficult”. An increasingly popular option is to go via the western Balkans. The rate from Alexandroupolis to Austria, along a route managed by Greeks, Albanians, Serbs and Moroccans, is €2,800.
Most illegal immigrants in Greece have crossed the Evros. In 2009 local police registered 8,800 migrants here; in 2010, 47,000; and in 2011, 55,000. In January this year 2,800 are known to have crossed. The most numerous are Pakistanis, followed by Afghans, Bangladeshis, Algerians and Congolese. By some estimates Greece has half a million illegal migrants. The euro crisis makes it hard for them to find work.
Illegal migrants are like water, says Despina Syrri, a researcher: when one channel is blocked they find another. In the past many immigrants who did not want to stay for long in Greece could find work, at least temporarily. Some procured fake passports with visas for Europe’s Schengen zone. Many smuggled themselves on to lorries heading by ferry to Italy. But these options are all getting harder. That is why thousands now move north through Macedonia and Serbia towards Hungary. Smaller numbers trek through Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Croatia.
It is hard to stanch the flow. Polish, German and other policemen from Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, armed with the latest technology, peer over the border into Turkey and help their Greek colleagues to spot columns of would-be migrants, sometimes 100-strong. The Greek police inform the Turks. But on the Turkish side the army is in charge, not the police, and it often arrives too late. Short of a change in Turkish policy, the use of force or a wall, the flow will continue.
The border is some 206km (128 miles) long. All of it is river, except for a 12.5km stretch of land. In 2010 at least 26,000 crossed here, but last year that number had fallen to 900. And early last month the Greeks started building a fence to stop people walking across. The reason for the decline since 2010, says Giorgios Salamangas, the local police chief, is that Frontex’s early warnings have had an effect. More pertinently, Turkish troops seem to have decided to change their policy of “pretending they could not see them at all”.
In Istanbul Murat Celikkan, a civil-rights activist who has worked with refugees, says that Turkey, itself overwhelmed with migrants from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and now Syria, wants to get rid of them. However, given the poor state of their relations with the EU, the Turks also see this flow as leverage in talks with Brussels. And they do not see why Turkey should take on the burden of hosting immigrants just to help out the EU.
In a snowbound Banja Koviljaca, on the Serbian border with Bosnia, Anosh, a forlorn young Afghan, has ended up in Serbia’s centre for asylum-seekers. In 2008 51 people applied for asylum in Serbia. Last year the number was 3,134. The true figure crossing into Serbia must be several times higher. Anosh crossed the Evros last year and bought a fake Romanian passport in Athens for €400. He boarded a ferry to Italy, but was rumbled on the Italian side when the police got their Romanian translator to quiz him. Sent back to Greece, he and a group of Afghans paid a guide €500 each to help them walk into Macedonia. There they stayed in a safe house for two days and, after a taxi ride to the border, were shepherded across the hills into Serbia for another €200.
Rados Djurovic, who runs Serbia’s Asylum Protection Centre, says that few of the asylum-seekers want to stay in Serbia. They apply because it gives them a chance to rest, to get medical care, and to move around legally until they work out how to leave and where to go. Most important, they get an identity card that allows them to receive money, via a wire-transfer agency, to continue their journey.
From Bangladesh to Subotica on the Serbian border with Hungary, where groups of Afghans and others live in huts on frozen scrubland, countries play pass-the-buck with these immigrants. In Kosovo, off the main route, police sources estimate that over 1,000 pass through every year. Some say that, when they are caught in Macedonia or Serbia, policemen sometimes take the migrants to the border and tell them to walk across to Switzerland, Hungary or a “Muslim country”.
Most migrants aim to get to Hungary because they can then cross easily into Austria and, thanks to Schengen, get as far as Calais without border controls. “So long as you have got the money,” says Mr Djurovic, “you can get anywhere.”
Read more: “Balkan visitors“