On Jan. 19, a boat carrying refugees capsized en route from Turkey to Greece and 12 people, women and children, drowned in plain view of the Greek coast guard. At least seven migrants died in a similar accident in the Aegean Sea in March, six in April and at least 22 in May.
Rana Fida, 42, steps onto the balcony of her refugee apartment on the Greek island of Lesbos. Looking out at the sea she crossed to get there, she says: "It's a miracle to be here."
Fida and her 12-year-old twins, Aya and Abdullah, tried three times to flee to Europe from Syria, using the land route through Turkey. Twice they were detained by Bulgarian security forces and sent back to Turkey and the third time Turkish police detained the family. On the fourth attempt, Fida risked her life and that of her children by boarding a trafficker's inflatable boat.
This is a direct consequence of Frontex's efforts to secure the borders. Until recently, refugees in the southeastern Mediterranean region were able to reach Europe by land. But then, in response to pressure from the EU, Greece sealed off its border with Turkey. In 2012, the Greek government applied the Melilla model and built a 10.5-kilometer border fence at the Evros River, deployed 1,800 additional police officers and opened new internment camps for migrants. In 2011 and 2012, Frontex invested about 37 million in Operation Poseidon to secure the Greek-Turkish border. A few kilometers to the north, Bulgaria, with EU support, has just completed a 30-kilometer metal fence along a section of the border.
The technical upgrades are all part of "effective border management," say officials at Frontex.
More and more refugees are now taking the sea route. At least 218 people died in the Aegean between August 2012 and July 2014. According to human rights organizations, the Greek coast guard forced some of them back into the open sea, where they drowned.
Fida worked as an elementary school teacher in Damascus, where her husband was a manager for a bus company, but the Syrian civil war tore the family apart. To avoid military service, the two eldest sons fled to Sweden and Denmark when the fighting began in 2011. Fida persevered in Damascus with her husband and the twins. "I didn't want to leave my country. Until the end, I hoped that the war would end soon," she says. But when thugs working for dictator Bashar Assad abducted Fida's husband last summer, she fled to Lebanon and flew to Istanbul from there.
More than a million refugees have arrived in Turkey since the civil war in Syria began. Roughly a third are housed in temporary camps, where they receive regular meals and their children go to school. But most of the new arrivals are forced to make do without government assistance.
Fida and her children lived in a one-room apartment in Istanbul that acquaintances had found for them. To help pay the rent, her son Abdullah worked as a runner in a brokerage firm. Fida wanted to continue to northern Europe, where her sons live and for 800, a trafficker guided the family to the Bulgarian border.
Fida's voice falters when she talks about her first encounter with Europe. Holding her two children by the hand, she and two dozen other migrants wandered aimlessly around the Turkish-Bulgarian border region at night. Bulgarian police using dogs tracked down the refugees in a forest. Fida was arrested and the security forces beat her son, she says. The family spent a day at a police station, until the Bulgarian police took them back to Turkey.
Profiting from Desperation
EU member states are obligated to review the situation of each individual refugee. But nations on the EU's external borders, like Spain, Bulgaria and Greece, repeatedly ignore this rule. In the course of illegal "push-back" operations, they simply return refugees to neighboring countries.
After half a year in Istanbul and another failed attempt to reach Europe by land, Fida followed the advice of other migrants and risked the dangerous passage across the Mediterranean. "It was our only choice. How were the children and I supposed to make a living in Turkey?" she asks.
The city, 330 kilometers southwest of Istanbul, has developed into a hub for migrants in recent years with the traffickers' buses departing from Izmir for the coast. On a muggy summer afternoon, dozens of refugees -- families from Syria, and men from Sudan and Somalia -- sit and wait in the alleys behind the Basmane train station.
Faris, a young Syrian, explains how the trafficking business works. He fled the war in Aleppo in 2012 and worked for a year and a half in construction in the Turkish border city of Kilis. An acquaintance found him a job as a driver for a traffickers' network in Izmir. "I never wanted to work as a trafficker. But I need the money for Europe," says Faris.
Gangs have divided up the immigrant business in Turkey, and their leaders hire refugees like Faris as helpers. Faris is paid a commission to smuggle migrants from Izmir to the coast.
A Combat Zone
Under a deal the EU signed with Turkey last December, Ankara agreed to take back refugees who had reached the EU through Turkey, in return for the prospect of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in Europe. It is yet another attempt by the EU to stop refugees before they reach its borders. But the Turkish police only monitor traffickers' routes intermittently, because the area is too large to control. Besides, says Faris, some officials receive bribes from traffickers. Fida and her children reached the Turkish coast after spending a night in Izmir. The smuggler dropped the family off in a cove and sent them to a boat.
Fida clung to her son Abdullah during the passage across the Aegean as water splashed into the overfilled inflatable boat. She was so terrified that she vomited. But the passengers were in luck, and after four hours at sea they reached the island of Lesbos without being detected by Greek patrols.
The passage between the Turkish Mediterranean coast and the Greek islands has turned into a combat zone. According to Frontex, in 2013 some 24,800 migrants tried to reach the EU from Turkey illegally, mainly by sea, more than in almost any other region. An army of Turkish, Greek and other European border guards has been deployed to stop the flow of migrants.
A light breeze is blowing across the Aegean Sea. Panagiotis Polidoras, the captain of the Greek coast guard on the island of Lesbos, has invited reporters to accompany his team on patrol. He wants to demonstrate how conscientiously the coast guard is on Lesbos. His speedboat glides across the smooth water. The lights of Turkish towns flicker in the distance.
Operations in the border region are subject to strict rules. One of them is that the Greek coast guard may not patrol in Turkish waters. If Polidoras discovers a refugee boat on his radar, he notifies his Turkish counterparts. This approach enables the Turkish coast guard to stop quite a few migrants before they cross the maritime border.
Under national and European law, the Greek coast guard may detain refugees who reach Greek waters but not send them back to Turkey. Most migrants are traveling on unseaworthy boats, and Polidoras says his team often saves refugees from drowning.
But human rights observers accuse the Greek coast guard of sometimes using brutal methods to fend off migrants. Last year, a number of Syrians told the organization Pro Asyl about mistreatment at the hands of Greek patrols.
According to the Syrians, men in black uniforms forcibly took refugees to a military base, where they beat them with wooden sticks, tied their hands behind their backs and confiscated their mobile phones and passports. "We thought we were in Europe and in safety," said one of the refugees, adding that they were locked into a windowless room for many hours. According to the refugee, the security forces placed the migrants on boats with empty gasoline tanks and towed them out to sea in the evening. Turkish patrols eventually picked up the refugees.
Antonios Sofiadelis, the head of the Greek coast guard on Lesbos, denies the allegations, saying that any such cases were isolated incidents. But the Syrian refugees' accounts coincide with reports by Amnesty International and the bar association in Izmir, which investigated similar cases. According to Pro Asyl, between October 2012 and September 2013, about 2,000 refugees were sent back to Turkey, in violation of international law, at land and sea borders in the context of push-back operations that often turned violent. And according to Amnesty International reports, Greek border agents even shot at Syrian refugees with live ammunition in March.
An Impossible Task
Konstantinos Triantafyllos, a Greek lawmaker, believes that the human rights violations in the Aegean point to a fundamental crisis in European refugee policy. The EU is entrusting countries along its fringes with an impossible task, says Triantafyllos: To seal of the borders, on the one hand, and to save human lives on the other. Italian authorities face the same dilemma.
As Greece struggles with the consequences of the economic crisis, the government's willingness to accept refugees is understandably low. Although Athens apparently doesn't openly urge the coast guard to engage in push-back operations, it also doesn't actively oppose such operations. Any migrant rescued by Greek patrols in the Aegean is a potential asylum applicant. When he was the opposition leader in 2012, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras promised to "recapture" Greek cities from such asylum applicants. Meanwhile, the former Athens police chief said in a speech: "We must make life unbearable for the migrants."
The EU encourages this treatment of refugees. In the last three years, it has paid Greece more than 12 million to care for migrants. In the same period, it deemed securing the Greek borders to be worth 228 million.
Fide now lives in an apartment provided by a Greek aid organization on Lesbos. She wants to join her sons in Sweden and has filed a petition with the authorities to allow the family to be reunited. Very few migrants apply for asylum in Greece because conditions there are miserable for recognized refugees. That's why many are now living illegally in central and northern European countries.
The Dublin Convention, which regulates the jurisdiction for asylum cases, came into effect in 1997. Under the Convention, any refugee who reaches Europe may only apply for asylum in the country he or she reaches first. It benefits Germany, which is surrounded by EU countries, but it also tempts overwhelmed countries on the external borders to treat refugees poorly so that they will choose other routes.