Illegal Immigrants in Greece: At the Mercy of the People Smugglers

By Andreas Ulrich in Nea Vyssa, Greece

Many of the illegal immigrants in the EU arrive via Greece, which is overwhelmed by the flood of incomers. The would-be migrants are ruthlessly exploited by people smugglers, and many of them die in the attempt to get to Europe. SPIEGEL heard the stories of a group of young Bangladeshi men who made it to Athens -- and discovered the reality behind the dream.

Photo Gallery: From Bangladesh to Athens Photos
Andreas Ulrich / DER SPIEGEL

The men standing in the train station of Nea Vyssa, a small farming village in the far northeastern corner of Greece, are soaking wet. Oyud, 20, Yousuf, 34, and seven other young Bangladeshi men have arrived in Europe. It's 7 o'clock in the morning, it's cold and their clothes cling to their skin. The men are shivering, and one has a bleeding wound across his face.

That night, the men had crossed the Evros (also known as the Maritsa), the river separating Greece from Turkey, in a rubber dinghy that was much too small. When a police boat appeared, they jumped in the water. The officers tried to detain them and circled around them, hitting one of them on the head with the boat's propeller. But the would-be immigrants succeeded in making it to the opposite shore, where they hid in the underbrush.

And now they're in Europe.

A Business Worth Millions

Oyud, Yousuf and the others have been traveling for months. They have made it across seas, through deserts and over mountain ranges. They have endured hunger, thirst, heat, cold and physical abuse -- all in the hope of a better life.

Immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Syria and Africa have been crossing over the Evros by the thousands. Greece is the gateway to the West, and roughly nine out of every 10 people illegally entering Europe follow this route. On peak days, the figure can reach 500 people.

Each of them has paid up to $10,000 (€7,950) for the journey. It is a business worth millions to the people smugglers, who play an indispensable role in the illegal entry into Europe. SPIEGEL accompanied the would-be immigrants on the last leg of their odyssey, learning not only about their motives and anxieties, but also about a trafficking system that is as brutal as it is well-organized.

It is a system that reaches all the way to Germany. Since the Greeks have not been able to seal their borders and are hopelessly overtaxed by the influx of people from Asia and Africa, Germany has had to cope with rising numbers of asylum seekers. In 2011, 45,741 people applied for asylum in Germany, an 11 percent increase over the previous year. In the same period, the number of people illegally entering Germany rose by 18.6 percent to reach 21,156. This has prompted German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich to call for new restrictions on the border-free travel regime within the European Union as well as for the temporary reintroduction of border controls whenever a member state cannot sufficiently secure its borders.

Clean Cities and Beautiful Women

Oyud Mina comes from Sylhet, a major city in northeastern Bangladesh. With a per capita annual income of roughly $680, Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest countries. Oyud is an orphan and has a sister who is married. Since there was no work to be had in Sylhet, Oyud says he moved to Dubai when he was only 15. There, he worked as a painter at construction sites, earning 100 dirhams -- roughly €20 -- a day.

One day, Oyud got an offer to travel to Europe. He was told he could pay off the costs later.

To him, Europe sounded like clean cities, beautiful women and cool cars. When Oyud was ready to start the journey, the middleman suddenly demanded a $1,000 prepayment.

Oyud scrapped together all the money he had. On Feb. 22, he put on his only jacket and set off without any luggage. A car jam-packed with others searching for a better life took him south. At a certain point, they were forced to get out of the car and walk for a few hours in the desert. "I saw soldiers," Oyud says, "but they looked the other way."

They arrived in the port city of Muscat, the capital of Oman. There, the 28 men got into a delivery truck that brought them to the shore, where an open boat was lying on the beach. They squeezed themselves onto the boat, sitting on top of each other and holding on tight. The trip lasted hours, the waves were high and the boat traveled fast. They suffered hard blows, bruises and cuts. When they finally reached land, it was like a deliverance.

'It Was Hell'

But their feelings of relief were short-lived. They had landed in Balochistan, the western province of Pakistan bordering Iran. Here, they camped out under open skies in a guarded and fenced-in camp. At this point, Oyud says, the people smugglers demanded $3,000 to continue the journey. "They beat us and threatened to sell us to the mafia, who would kill us and take out our organs," he says. It took his sister two weeks to come up with the money and send it to Pakistan. "It was hell," Oyud says.

Traveling only by night, they made their way across Iran. Oyud remembers making stops in Minab, Shiraz and Tehran. Then they saw mountains. Things got going again at 3 a.m., after only a few hours of sleep. They climbed up the mountain on foot, walking through the snow and ice in sneakers.

Soldiers appeared, shots were fired and Oyud heard screams. He buried himself deep in the snow and held his breath. When they started marching forward again, three men were missing from the group. They were dead.

Once they made it over the border and into Turkey, the Bangladeshis made their way to a remote house, where they were provided with fake passports. From there, they traveled in a tourist bus to Istanbul. During the 24-hour journey, the would-be immigrants passed through several checkpoints without problem. When they reached their destination, there were taxi drivers waiting and calling out numbers. Oyud's number was 75. He finally ended up in the house of an Iranian in the huge Turkish metropolis.

To continue on the journey, Oyud had to pay $3,500 more. He says his sister sold her jewelry and house, leaving her with nothing.

Drowned at the Border

Oyud waited in Istanbul for weeks. The room in the Iranian's house gradually filled up. There he was joined by Yousuf, who was married with two children. He had run a small restaurant in Muscat, the Omani capital, but had been cheated by his partner and left with debts.

They started out on the night of April 20 in a group of nine. Roughly 240 kilometers (150 miles) separated them from Edirne, a large city in northwestern Turkey that is the bottleneck for illegal immigrants making their way to Europe. Here, the Evros River makes a bend and flows through Turkey for a stretch. From the minarets of the large mosques, one can see Greece in the distance. Bridges in Edirne span the river. From there, it would only be a short walk into the European Union.

However, the land border here has been well-guarded for some time now. Frontex, the EU agency responsible for external border security, provides support for the Greek border posts in the form of thermal-imaging cameras. Germany recently boosted its Frontex contingent there, from six to 10 officers.

Plans also call for a 10-kilometer fence to be built at a cost of over €3 million. Its purpose is to keep the poorest of the poor out of Europe, just as the United States seals itself off from its Mexican neighbors with a border fence. What's more, robots and drones may even be deployed to guard Europe's external borders in the future, according to the latest plans from Brussels.

In Edirne, the people traffickers send their clients over the river. It's a perilous passage, and many people have already drowned in the fast-flowing rapids. Their bodies lie in anonymous graves in the nearby community of Didymoteicho.

Yousuf says that, before pushing them forward into the darkness, the people smuggler yelled out: "Keep to the left. To the right is Bulgaria, and you'll have problems there." Before that, he had given the would-be immigrants a cell phone wrapped up so as to be waterproof and €60 each to make the rest of the journey to Athens.

Unwanted Burden

Eight hours later, after barely eluding the border police, the nine foreigners are standing in their drenched clothes outside Panagiotis Mitoussis' café right on the market square of Nea Vyssa. The 64-year-old restaurateur sees refugees like these Bangladeshis every day. "We are a small country; we can't let everybody in," he complains, adding that Greece has been left to deal with the problem by itself.

According to the 2003 EU regulation known as "Dublin II," the EU member state in which a refugee arrives is responsible for handling his or her asylum process. The regulation aims to force countries such as Greece to take its border-security responsibilities seriously. But it also relieves countries located at the center of the EU, such as Germany, from the burden of unwanted asylum seekers.

Michael Hartmann, the domestic-policy spokesman for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), has been arguing that Dublin II should be reconsidered, and that the states on the EU's external borders should be given more assistance. Since 2011, Germany hasn't been sending any more refugees back to Greece, as the country's asylum policies supposedly violate human rights.

Greece has not been able to cope with the onslaught in any case. Since 2006, officials have registered a total of roughly 100,000 illegal immigrants per year. Owing to personnel shortages, the asylum applications are processed at a sluggish pace. Refugees are provided with neither financial support nor accommodations, and they only receive food donated by aid organizations and supermarkets.

Meanwhile, the rest of Europe has sealed itself off. The German government, for example, has sent officers from the Federal Police to Greece. Calling themselves "document consultants," they are stationed in airports and ferry terminals to keep a lookout for suspicious travelers. In addition, almost every plane arriving at German airports from Greece is closely monitored.

Given these circumstances, many refugees get stuck in Athens, which is currently believed to be home to around 100,000 illegal immigrants. They have been exacerbating social tensions there, at a time when Greek society is already on edge because of the country's debt crisis. Massive numbers of Greek police officers have been deployed in an attempt to at least keep the illegal immigrants away from the Plaka, the historical, tourist-filled neighborhood in Athens on the northern and eastern slopes of the Acropolis. Likewise, the illegal immigrants can also find no peace in the streets northwest of Omonia Square, an area which is predominantly inhabited by foreigners. Thugs belonging to the far-right extremist Golden Dawn party frequent the neighborhood.

Questioned and Fingerprinted

Back in Nea Vyssa, Oyud and Yousuf still have no idea of what to expect on the continent of their dreams. Cold and shivering, they wait in the market square until the police arrive with a delivery truck. The Bangladeshis climb into the cargo area and are transported to the transit camp in Filakio, while the man with the cut across his face is taken to a hospital.

Oyud and the others are questioned, photographed and fingerprinted. They are given a piece of paper bearing their names in Greek, which stipulates that they must leave the country after 30 days. Oyud cannot read it.

The procedure ends shortly after midday. Now they are in Europe -- and free. There is a bus that runs directly from the camp to Athens. But since it costs €70, more than they have, the Bangladeshis decide to take the train. The next one will be heading to Athens the following day at 3:42 p.m., so Oyud and Yousuf spend the night in the train station in the nearby town of Alexandroupolis.

The train's cars are full of refugees, and the trip last over 15 hours. Oyud and Yousuf fall asleep quickly. For the first time in a long while, they feel safe.

'My Karma Has Abandoned Me'

In the evening, they contact the people smugglers. Yousuf dials a telephone number, but what the man on the other end of the line tells him throws him back thousands of kilometers. "He says Greece is like Bangladesh," Yousuf says. "There's no work."

Yousuf tries not to panic. With his goal now within reach, his dreams have been shattered. "My karma has abandoned me," he says with tear-filled eyes.

Early the next morning, shortly before arriving in Athens, things get hectic. The refugees grab their luggage and gather into small groups. When the train comes to a halt, hundreds of people stream out of its cars and hasten toward the exits.

The Bangladeshis watch as the train platform gradually empties. They are the last passengers left. A security guard approaches them and tells them to go the park across the street. "You'll be picked up there," he says. He knows the game.

A young man with sparkling white teeth, jeans and sneakers shows up in the park. He is also from Bangladesh, and has been sent to meet the men. He has already been in Athens for two years, he says, but that there's no work. The only option is street trading. "The money runs out every month," he says with a laugh. He adds that he has a German girlfriend and pulls a German-English dictionary out of his backpack.

Athens isn't actually his final destination, the young man says. He just doesn't have enough money to continue yet. The rest of the journey to Germany costs between €2,000 and €3,000.

Translated from the German by Josh Ward

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