Out of Sight, Out of Mind
A human tragedy is unfolding at the Turkish-Greek border. While Erdoğan, the President of Turkey, is waving refugees through to Europe, the European Union is failing to come up with a humane solution to the problem beset by fears of repeating the experience of 2015. The rush to shut down borders is putting European values in an increasingly precarious position.
Little Fatima is playing hide-and-seek between the trees with her friends. The seven-year-old girl, whose parents ran from Syria a few years ago, is unaware of the fact that she is being filmed by multiple cameras. Tall men and women, Western or Northern European by appearance, are videotaping the children at play, as though playfulness was something unusual in kids her age.
Her parents have gone through hell on earth those past few years. They ran from Assad, the Syrian dictator, to the north of Syria, where they believed themselves to be safe for a while. With the support of Putin, President of Russia, however, Assad bombed his way to Idlib, one step at a time and Fatima's family ultimately had no choice but to make for Turkey. The Turkish government, though, had meanwhile built a concrete wall four hundred kilometres long to keep out refugees – the four million that had arrived already were just about enough for Ankara's taste. Fatima's father sold his last belongings to be able to pay the smugglers who would help his family across the border. The price in those days is said to have been EUR 300 per head.
Fatima's father eventually found work in a textile factory in Istanbul. But his earnings, drastically less than the legal minimum wage, were neither enough to pay the rent nor to buy food for his three children. ‘When we heard the news that the border to the West has been thrown open, we packed our bags and left’, he says. The family was among the 15 000 men, women and children who arrived at the Greek border last week, immediately after Erdoğan announced that he would no longer try to prevent refugees from leaving Turkey. Since then, these human beings have become pawns in the quarrel between Erdoğan and Europe.
Ever since Erdoğan's announcement, the sleepy little towns on either side of the border have suddenly become the matter of international headlines. But there are copious quantities of false reports being spread that cause the climate, toxic from the outset, to deteriorate by the day.
In the small village of Kastanies on the Greek side of the border, time seems to have been standing still. The average age of townsfolk is 70. There simply are no young people, just elderly gentlemen are sitting in cafés and playing Tavli all day. Yet Kastanies has been the focus of world-wide attention these last few days. Hundreds of journalists have almost doubled the number of residents, from 1 059 to nearly 2 000. Even top representatives of the EU have come to Kastanies to demonstrate solidarity with Greece: Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, Charles Michel, President of the European Council, and David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament. The purporse of their joint press conference: the EU is going to remain Fortress Europe, and will the Greeks please keep protecting its outer walls. The pictures from 2015, when prodigious numbers of people made the trek to Western Europe, along country roads and highways, remain vivid in the collective memory. Athens will receive additional assistance to the tune of EUR 700 million from Brussels in return for playing the role of Europe's bouncer.
No refugees are in evidence on the day of our visit. A few journalists are holding the fort on the off chance that something, anything to report on might still happen.
As a result of riot-like clashes between Greek security forces and refugees on the days before, the border checkpoints have been shut down by the military. There is no coming through now. The inhabitants of Kastanies used to cross the border frequently and casually – every Friday, droves of them would travel to Edirne, a nearby Turkish city, for the affordable groceries. No more fruits, vegetables, and meat from Turkey for the time being. An elderly woman we speak to about the events of the past few days complains she will have to do without her regular shopping trip this week.
A nearby hill offers a good view of the border. Numerous journalists have taken up posts on the railway tracks and are pointing their cameras into Turkey. The minarets of the world-famous Selimiye Mosque are recognizable in the distance. Greek and Turkish guard towers are looming, as though threatening each other. Scores of soldiers have been posted on both sides of the border. A bad call, a case of poor risk assessment, and the two countries, eternal rivals, could slide into direct confrontation. The refugees cannot be seen from the hill; trees bar the view. They can be heard well enough, however. Every now and then a smoke-like cloud rises into the air: tear gas. It is unclear which side is deploying the gas. The cries of people hidden from view impart a morbid atmosphere onto the scene. Something is happening, specifically what we do not know. Every ten minutes, the journalists have to give up their posts on the tracks because there is a train approaching.
‘There has been a stalemate for a couple of days now’, according to a Greek journalist with Al Jazeera, ‘the Greek army will not permit anyone to cross the border’. Ankara claims that 100 000 refugees have crossed the land border into Greece since Turkey has thrown open the gates, but this number is ‘pure fantasy’. Süleyman Soylu, the Turkish Minister of interior and one of the hardliners in Erdoğan's cabinet, publishes updates every day. His most recent headcount is 140 000. ‘Just a few hundred have actually made it so far, and those have been arrested and sent back’, our informant says.
Even so, the few hundred asylum seekers have brought the Greek asylum system to the brink of collapse – and thus challenged Europe's system of values. Values such as freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of the person, equality before the law, the principle of human dignity – all these values come with asterisks behind their names today owing to the events at the EU's external border. The Refugee Convention, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union – major achievements of our civilization, which the fear of a few thousand human beings looking for protection has turned into meaningless scraps of paper.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Prime Minister of Greece, is resorting to harsh measures to gain the upper hand in the stalemate. Tear gas and water cannon are being deployed; the right of asylum has been suspended. Where the Greek state does not reach, self-styled ‘patriotic citizens’ volunteer as enforcers. In the nearby towns of Feres and Poros, committees of armed vigilantes are said to have formed and to be patrolling the border. Just a few days ago, vigilantes on the island of Lesbos have set two buildings used by refugee organizations on fire in an act of vigilante justice. Asked about the committees, the local chief of police shrugs his shoulders and claims to be unaware of any such activity. But there is good news as well: opposition to the government's hard line is growing among the Greek people.
On a normal day, the distance from Kastanies to Doyran is 37 kilometres by car. Now that the border is closed, the drive is almost three times longer. Doyran, a Turkish village even smaller than Kastanies at 639 inhabitants, has been the focal point of Turkish media attention ever since Erdoğan's proclamation. Every day, reporters in the employ of virtually every TV station are broadcasting live from what is usually a quiet corner somewhere near Edirne. Doyran lies directly on the banks of the Maritsa, the river known as the Evros in Greek. The river forms the border between Greece and Turkey. Nowhere else are the two neighbours geographically closer: at low water level, a proficient swimmer can cross from Turkey into the EU in just a few minutes here. In recent days, Doyran used to be quite popular with those trying to reach Europe thanks to the relative ease of crossing. But now the refugees appear to have vanished from the face of the earth. Only a large heap of rubbish on the banks of the river is left of what used to be a sizeable camp. An elderly townswoman explains that the campers have been carted off by buses the night before. The incident serves to confirm reports that many refugees did not reach the Greek border on their own but were transported there by buses provided by government agencies. ‘Of course, they're only human’, the woman says. ‘I feel for them. But I'm also relieved they're gone. We finally have our peace and quiet again’.
Those who are still holding out for a chance to travel on to Europe in the Edirne region are sleeping in makeshift tents near the central bus station. They number in the low hundreds – men, women, children. Interviews reveal that only a small fraction of them originally hail from Syria. Most of the refugees have come here from Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iran. The time is 6 p.m., it is gradually getting cool on this evening in March.
We meet Amir, a 25-year-old Afghan who has been living in Turkey for almost ten years and speaks the local language with remarkable fluency. ‘We're different from the Syrians in that we have no legal status in Turkey. We can neither enrol in schools nor go to the doctor. This lack of prospects is forcing people to leave for Europe’, the young man says. A few other men join us when they notice the camera. They all want to tell their stories. The stories all talk about hope, dignity, and future, but also about fear, uncertainty, and hardship. Without expressly saying so, they convey that they feel betrayed by Erdoğan: Erdoğan has used them to gain leverage opposite Europe. They also report abuse on the part of Greece. By way of evidence, they show us a cell phone video of men stripped down to their underwear, allegedly by Greek police. The authenticity of the video cannot be ascertained right then and there. Many similar videos that are currently making the rounds on social media and in WhatsApp groups are hoaxes. It remains unclear who produced these videos and for what purpose they are being spread.
The fate of these refugees, however, is being decided neither in Kastanies nor in Doyran but in Ankara and Moscow. Europe has deluded itself into believing that the EU-Turkey agreement of 2016 has solved the refugee crisis. It needs to wake up. Over the course of the past couple of years, Erdoğan has repeatedly hinted that sooner or later the day would come when he would open the borders. The degree to which Europe has responded to recent developments with shock and paralysis is alarming. Rather than using all those years to develop long-term solutions, Brussels and Europe's national capitals alike chose to take Erdoğan's continued compliance for granted. With Erdoğan's defeat in the 2019 municipal elections and with Turkey painting itself into a corner in Syria both politically and militarily, the writing was on the wall – it was only a matter of time until Erdoğan, the ruthless politician, would play the refugee card. Now the spectre of 2015 is haunting Europe. Fortress Europe must remain standing, but at what cost?
The article was written by Aret Demirci, Project Assistant in FNF Regional Office. The field trip was conducted by both Aret Demirci and Athanasios Grammenos, Project Coordinator for FNF Greece.