Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants have arrived at the Turkey-Greece land border since Ankara announced on February 28 that it would no longer prevent them leaving for Europe, in an attempt to pressure the West into supporting its military operations in Syria.
People of all ages, from children to the elderly, are now stuck in limbo as they wait on the border in the hope of making it across.
Around the Pazarkule crossing alone, near the city of Edirne in north-western Turkey, tens of thousands of people are waiting to enter Greece.
“It’s hard to live here. Maybe not for you, because it’s your country, but for us it’s hard,” said Hamid, an Iranian who came to Turkey two years ago. Hamid spoke to Inside Turkey as he waited at the Pazarkule border crossing, along with others from countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Ethiopia.
Hamid fled religious persecution in Iran two years ago, settling with his wife in the Black Sea province of Sinop.
“My wife is a Christian,” he said. “Muslims and Christians can’t be in a relationship in Iran.”
After Hamid converted to Christianity, he came under pressure from his family.
“My father is a police officer,” he continued. “Him, my sister and my brother-in-law made complaints about my wife. My brother-in-law is a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. So we had to flee.”
Hamid said that his high hopes for a new life in Turkey had not been realised. An electrical engineer by trade, he found himself working in construction sites and factories for a daily wage as low as 100 lira, sometimes for 12 hours a day.
“My boss owed me 5,500 lira,” Hamid said. “I sued him but he still wouldn’t pay me because I don’t have a work permit.”
Lack of health insurance has also been a problem for Hamid. “I’ve had a toothache for days. I went to a hospital the other day but they asked for way too much [money].”
But although Turkey is not trying to stop people from leaving, they are not allowed to cross over. Greek border guards have blocked the way, and tens of thousands of people are now spread out across a no-man’s land between the Greek frontier on one side and heavily armed Turkish soldiers on the other. The official crossing point is blocked by Greek police, while armoured vehicles and soldiers patrol the fences and barriers along the border, firing tear gas at those who attempt to cross.
After two days of cold, hunger and clouds of tear gas, Hamid and his wife gave up and went back to Sinop. For those who remain, their only hope is to cross the Evros river, which forms the majority of the 191-kilometre land border between Greece and Turkey. There are migrants in every village where the river narrows, and smugglers in every village where there are migrants.
In Doyran, one such village on the Turkish side of the border, smugglers go back and forth on the river with a pair of dinghies. Migrants wait for their turn, while locals observe the situation and enjoy snacks on a nearby hilltop. Some villagers told Inside Turkey that a dinghy cost 600 lira per trip, but migrants said that in fact it was 600 lira per seat. Elsewhere, smugglers said that a dinghy cost 2,000 lira to hire and 50 euros per crossing per person.
Salih, originally from Syria, spent five days travelling up and down the villages along the Evros before stopping with his family in an area near the historic Ottoman bridge over the river Tunca, which feeds into the Evros. He said that his family crossed the Evros on March 3 but were stopped by Greek police and civilian militia, beaten and sent back.
“We won’t leave here until the gates open,” he said.
In Elçili, another border village, a group of 25 Afghan migrants were left stranded by smugglers on an islet that stands only 300 metres from the Greek border but is considered Turkish land. After spending the night there without food or water, they were rescued by Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Authority (AFAD). Even as the rescue was taking place, more groups of migrants were arriving at the village.
Turkish interior minister Süleyman Soylu claimed that as of March 7, over 143,000 migrants had left Turkey for Greece. The Greek authorities said these figures were inaccurate: according to them, 1,500 people had crossed without permission, and 26,000 were apprehended. Appealing for help from the EU’s border agency, a Greek government spokesperson accused Turkey of having become a “human smuggler”.
Migrants who make it to the Greek border often encounter harsh treatment. In a report on March 6, the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) alleged human rights violations that included people “beaten by Greek armed forces and being sent back after having their belongings and clothes seized”. It also raised concerns about injuries caused by pepper spray, and the lack of clean water and sanitation in the no-man’s land where many people are still camped out. At least one migrant has died (confirmed by the Edirne governor’s office on March 4), allegedly after being hit by gunfire from the Greek side of the border. A Greek official dismissed the claim as “fake news”.
On March 6, Ankara sent 1,000 special forces troops to the border to prevent Greece from coercing people back into Turkey. Many thus found themselves in limbo between the two countries.
A video posted on social media on March 4, shot on a bus near the Greek border, a person understood to be a Turkish police officer tells migrants, “Go ahead get off. You’re crossing over now.”
One of the migrants responds in Arabic that they have kids and cannot cross.
“Turkish soldiers will carry you across,” replied the officer. The migrants shouted. “Lies … We don’t want to!”
The officer then pulled out a gun and forced everyone off the bus. The Turkish government has not disputed the video’s authenticity.